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Second Edition

"Thc most. signilicant. work that the gift.ed scholar-criric, Hamid
Bloom, has yet written." Commonwcal*
Harold Bloom's The Anxiety ofInfluence ha s cas t its lon g shadow of
influence since it. was first published in HJ73. Through an insi ghtful
study of Homanti c poets, Bloom puts forth his ce ntr al vision of th e
relati ons between precursor's and th e individual arti st. I lis argument
that all lit erary text s are a stro ng mi sreading of those that preced e
th em had an enOl"1II 0US impact on th e practi ce of criticism and post-
struc turalist literary th eory. The book remains a ce ntr al work of cri t-
icism for all students of literature.
Written in a moving personal style, an chored by conc re te exam-
pl es, and memorabl e quot ations, thi s second ed ition of Bloom 's clas-
s ic work maintains that th e a nx ie ty of influence cannot be
cvadcd c- ncither by po ets nor by rosponsihl e readers and critics. A
new introduotion, ce nte l'ing upon Shakespeare and Mat -lowe,
explains the ge nesis of Bloom's thinking, and th e subseq ue nt inllu-
ence of th e bo ok on lit erary criticis m of th e past quart er of a ce nt ury,
TIleAnxiety ofInfluence, Second Edition provides a new ge ne l'ation
of scholars, stu de nts, and layrcadcrs a wel come additi on 10 th e Bloom
"Praise[or thefirst edition:
" Bloo m has helped to make the stu dy of Homant ic poet ry as int ell ec-
tually and spir itua lly challenging a branch of lit erary st ud ies as one
lIlay find ." The New York Times !fook Review
"Th is book wi ll asaurcdly co me to be va lued as a major twenti eth -
ce ntury statement on th e subject. of tr aditi on and indi vidual tal ent."
Da vid .I. Cordon, The Yale Review
Harold Bloom is Ste rl ing Professor of th e Humaniti es at Yale Uni-
vcrs ity and Bel'g Professor of En gli sh at ew York Un ive rs ity li e is
th e author of The Ilbtern Canon, Omens (if lil illennium, A ill ap of
ilfisre{u!ing , and The Book ofJ ,
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Harold Bloom
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Bioom, Harold
The anxiety of influence: a theory of poetry I by Harold Bloom.
end ed.
p. em.
ISBN-13 978-0-19"511221-4
ISBN 0-19"511221-0
I. Poetry. I. Title.
PNI03l.B53 1996
8 0 9 I ~ C 2 0 96-19988
There were 18 printings of the first edition of this book.
Since this page cannot legibly accommodate the acknowledgments, the following
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Printed in the United States of America
For William K. Wimsatt
PROLOGUE It Was A Great Marvel That They Were
In The Father Without Knowing Him 3
INTRODUCTION A Meditation upon Priority, and a
~ ~ ~ 5
I Clinemen or Poetic Misprision 19
2 Tessera or Completion and Antithesis 49
3 Kenosis or Repetition and Discontinuity 77
INTERCHAPTER A Manifesto for Antithetical
Criticism 93
4 Daemonization or The Counter-Sublime 99
5 Askesis or Purgation and Solipsism I 15
6 Apophrades or The Return of the Dead 139
EPILOGUE Reflections upon the Path
The Anguish of Contamination
Most of the first draft of what became The Anxiety of In-
fluence was written in the summer of 1967. Revised dur-
ing the next five years, the little book was published in
January 1973. For more than twenty years, I have been be-
mused by the book's reception, which remains ambiva-
lent. Rather than attempt an explication, this new preface
seeks to clarify and enlarge my vision of the influence pro-
cess, which is still a dark ground in most areas, whether in
the high arts, the intellectual disciplines, or the public
sphere. Heidegger, whom I cheerfully abhor, nevertheless
sets me an example when he says that it is necessary to
think one thought and one thought only, and to think it
through to the end. There is no end to "influence," a word
which Shakespeare used in two different but related senses.
Just before the second entrance of the Ghost, in the first
scene of Hamlet, the scholar Horatio evokes the world of
Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, where:
xii Preface
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets.
As stars with trains of fire, and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse.
Shakespeare may be thinking back two years, to 1598,
when he was at work upon Falstaffs last stand in Henry IV,
Part Two, in an England much troubled by the melancholy
of one solar and two lunar eclipses, prompting prognosti-
cations of doomsday in 1600. Hamlet, rather than the Last
Judgment, marked that year for Shakespeare, but Horatio,
more an antique Roman than a Dane, still broods on the
"disasters in the sun," reminding us of the starry theory of
influence upon those ill-starred, and the moon's (that
moist star) influx upon the waves. The flowing from the
stars upon our fates and our personalities is the prime
meaning of "influence," a meaning made personal between
Shakespearean characters. Shakespeare also uses the word
"influence" to mean "inspiration," both in the sonnets and
in the plays. The sonnet that influenced me in The Anxiet)
of Influence and its sequel, A Map of Misreading, I deliber-
ately refrained from citing in either book:
Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know'st thy estimate;
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting,
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.
Thyself thou gav'st, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gav'st it, else mistaking,
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Preface xiii
Comes home again, on better judgment making.
Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter:
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.
"Swerving" and "misprision" both depend upon mIS-
taking" as an ironical over-esteeming or over-estimation,
here in Sonnet 87. Whether Shakespeare ruefully is la-
menting, with a certain urbane reserve, the loss of the Earl
of Southampton as lover, or as patron, or as friend, is not
(fortunately) a matter upon which certitude is possible. Pal-
pably and profoundly an erotic poem, Sonnet 87 (not by
design) also can be read as an allegory of any writer's (or
person's) relation to tradition, particularly as embodied in
a figure taken as one's own forerunner. The speaker of
Sonnet 87 is aware that he had been made an offer that
he could not refuse, which is a dark insight into the na-
ture of authentic tradition. "Misprision" for Shakespeare,
as opposed to "mistaking," implied not only a misunder-
standing or misreading but tended also to be a punning
word-play suggesting unjust imprisonment. Perhaps "mis-
prision" in Shakespeare also means a scornful underesti-
mation: either way, he took the legal term and gave it an
aura of deliberate or willful misinterpretation. "Swerving,"
in Sonnet 87, is only secondarily a returning; primarily it
indicates an unhappy freedom.
I excluded Shakespeare from The Anxiety ofInfluence and
its immediate sequels because I was not ready to meditate
upon Shakespeare and originality. One cannot think
through the question of influence without considering the
most influential of all authors during the last four centu-
ries. I sometimes suspect that we really do not listen to one
another because Shakespeare's friends and lovers never
quite hear what the other is saying, which is part of the
ironical truth that Shakespeare largely invented us. The in-
vention of the human, as we know it, is a mode of influ-
xiv Preface
ence far surpassing anything literary. I cannot improve
upon Emerson's account of this influx. "Shakespeare; Or,
the Poet" in Representative Men (1850) remains unique in
its accurate estimate of the centrality of the poet, then and
Shakspeare is as much out of the category of eminent au-
thors, as he is out of the crowd. He is inconceivably wise; the
others, conceivably. A good reader can, in a sort, nestle into
Plato's brain, and think from thence; but not into Shak-
speare's. We are still out of doors. For executive faculty, for
creation, Shakspeare is unique. No man can imagine it better.
He was the farthest reach of subtlety compatible with an indi-
vidual self,-the subtilest of authors, and only just within the
possibility of authorship. With this wisdom of life, is the equal
endowment of imaginative and of lyric power. He clothed the
creatures of his legend with form and sentiments, as if they
ere people who had lived under his roof; and few real men
have left such distinct characters as these fictions. And they
spoke in language as sweet as it was fit. Yet his talents never
seduced him into an ostentation, nor did he harp on one
string. An omnipresent humanity coordinates all his faculties.
Give a man of talents a story to tell, and his partiality will pres-
ently appear. He has certain observations, opinions, topics,
which have some accidental prominence, and which he dis-
poses all to exhibit. He crams this part, and starves that other
part, consulting not the fitness of the thing, but his fitness and
strength. But Shakspeare has no peculiarity, no importunate
topic; but all is duly given; no veins, no curiosities: no cow-
painter, no bird-fancier, no mannerist is he: he has no discov-
erable egotism: the great he tells greatly; the small, subordi-
nately. He is wise without emphasis or assertion; he is strong,
as nature is strong, who lifts the land into mountain slopes
without effort, and by the same rule as she floats a bubble in
the air, and likes as well to do the one as the other. This makes
that equality of power in farce, tragedy, narrative, and love-
songs; a merit so incessant, that each reader is incredulous of
the perception of other readers.
Preface xv
"We are still out of doors" is the crucial sentence there,
as Emerson slyly reminds us of the etymology of the word
"foreign," which in Shakespeare means "not of one's own
household," hence out of doors. I cannot think, at this bad
moment, of a better way to see Shakespeare, since the en-
tire movement of our current School of Resentment is to-
wards eradicating Shakespeare's uniqueness. Neo-Marxists,
New Feminists, New Historicists, French-influenced theo-
rists all demonstrate their cultural materialism by giving
us a reduced Shakespeare, a pure product of the "social
energies" of the English Renaissance. My own favorite joke
about this is to add to Lacan, or "French Freud," and
Derrida, or "French Joyce," the ultimate triumph of what
calls itself "theory": Foucault, or "French Shakespeare."
The French have never valued originality, and until a be-
lated Romanticism came to France, they never much cared
for Shakespeare's plays. They still esteem Shakespeare
rather less than do the Indonesians or the Japanese or the
Americans. Real multiculturalists, all over the globe, accept
Shakespeare as the one indispensable author, different
from all others in degree, and by so much that he becomes
different in kind. Shakespeare, as I have argued at length
elsewhere, quite simply not only is the Western canon; he
is also the world canon. That his appeal is equal to audi-
ences of all continents, races, and languages (always ex-
cluding the French) seems to me an absolute refutation
of our currently fashionable views, prevalent particularly
in Britain and America, that insists upon a Shakespeare
culture-bound by history and society. As Emerson rightly
concluded, no context, not even the theatrical, confines
Some able and appreciating critics think no criticism on Shak-
speare valuable, that does not rest purely on the dramatic merit;
that he is falsely judged as poet and philosopher. I think as
highly as these critics of his dramatic merit, but still think it
xvi Preface
secondary. He was a full man, who liked to talk; a brain exhal-
ing thoughts and images, which, seeking vent, found the drama
next at hand. Had he been less, we should have had to consider
how well he filled his place, how good a dramatist he was,-
and he is the best in the world. But it turns out, that what he
has to say is of that weight, as to withdraw some attention from
the vehicle; and he is like some saint whose history is to be
rendered into all languages, into verse and prose, into songs
and pictures, and cut up into proverbs; so that the occasion
which gave the saint's meaning the form of a conversation, or
of a prayer, or of a code of laws, is immaterial, compared with
the universality of its application. So it fares with the wise
Shakspeare and his book of life. He wrote the airs for all our
modern music: he wrote the text of modern life; the text of
manners: he drew the man of England and Europe; the father
of the man in America: he drew the man, and described the
day, and what is done in it: he read the hearts of men and
women, their probity, and their second thought, and wiles; the
wiles of innocence, and the transitions by which virtues and
vices slide into their contraries: he could divide the mother's
part from the father's part in the face of the child, or draw
the fine demarcations of freedom and of fate: he knew the laws
of repression which make the police of nature: and all the
sweets and all the terrors of human lot lay in his mind as truly
but as softly as the landscape lies on the eye. And the impor-
tance of this wisdom of life sinks the form, as of Drama or Epic,
out of notice. 'Tis like making a question concerning the paper
on which a king's message is written.
"He wrote the text of modern life" is the heart of this
matter: Shakespeare invented us, and continues to contain
us. We are now in an era of so-called "cultural criticism,"
which devalues all imaginative literature, and which par-
ticularly demotes and debases Shakespeare. Politicizing lit-
erary study has destroyed literary study, and may yet de-
stroy learning itself. Shakespeare has influenced the world
far more than it initially influenced Shakespeare. The com-
Preface xvii
mon assumption of all the Resenters is that state power is
everything and individual subjectivity is nothing, even if
that subjectivity belonged to William Shakespeare. Fright-
ened by their irrational social order, the English Renais-
sance playwrights, in this account, either became time-
servers or subverters or a mixture of both, while being
caught in the irony that even their textual subversions
helped to enhance state power, a power rather surprisingly
held to be reliant upon theatricality. I return to Emerson
for an antidote to all this power-mongering. Who wrote
the text of modern life, Shakespeare or the Elizabethan-
Jacobean political establishment? Who invented the human,
as we know it, Shakespeare or the court and its ministers?
Who influenced Shakespeare's actual text more, William
Cecil, Lord Burghley, the First Secretary to Her Majesty, or
Christopher Marlowe? What we once used to call "imaginative
literature" is indistinguishable from literary influence, and has
only an inessential relationship to state power. If any stan-
dards ofjudgment at all are to survive our current cultural
reductiveness, then we need to reassert that high literature
is exactly that, an aesthetic achievement, and not state
propaganda, even if literature can be used, has been used,
and doubtless will be used to serve the interests of a state,
or of a social class, or of a religion, or of men against
women, whites against blacks, Westerners against Eastern-
ers. I know of no more dismal contemporary comedy, either
in Great Britain or the United States, than the revolution-
ary pretenses of our academics, who persuade themselves
that they speak for the insulted and injured of the world by
denying the aesthetic primacy of Shakespeare, or by insist-
ing that aesthetic eminence of any sort is merely a capitalis-
tic mystification. Our Trinculos and Stephanos have arrived,
they say, to free Caliban from bondage to Prospero. Here
also Shakespeare has anticipated them, and teaches us that
what the Resenters truly resent is not state power but
xviii Preface
Shakespeare's power, the power of invention. Unable to be
Nietzsche, who has made them all belated, our Resenters
do not wish merely to re-proclaim the Death of God, so
they turn instead to proclaiming what only can be called
the Death of Shakespeare.
Coleridge spoke of the ever-living men and women, the
canonical writers, a most archaic way of speaking in this
present age, when students are taught to scorn the Dead
White European Males, or again, most simply William
Shakespeare. The largest truth of literary influence is that
it is an irresistible anxiety: Shakespeare will not allow you
to bury him, or escape him, or replace him. We have, al-
most all of us, thoroughly internalized the power of Shake-
speare's plays, frequently without having attended them or
read them. When the German poet Stefan George called
The Divine Comedy "the Book and School of the Ages," he
was speaking only about the education of great poets. All
the rest of us inescapably learn that Shakespeare's plays
constitute the Book and School of the Ages. I am not speak-
ing as an essentialist humanist, which I do not pretend to
be, or as a theorist of criticism, which is also not my role.
As a theorist of poetic influence, I am an anxious partaker
of Shakespeare, the inevitable role for all of us, who be-
latedly follow after Shakespeare's creation of our minds
and spirits. Literature, that is to say Shakespeare, cannot
be thought of in terms only of knowledge, as if all his meta-
phors pertained only to knowing. Shakespeare's pervasive
terms are metaphors of willing, and so they enter the do-
main of the lie. Most of our understandings of the will are
Will's, as it were, because Shakespeare invented the do-
main of those metaphors of willing that Freud named the
drives of Love and Death.
Our true relation to Shakespeare is that it is vain to his-
toricize or politicize him, because we are monumentally
over-influenced by him. No strong writer since Shakespeare
Preface xix
can avoid his influence, again excluding the recalcitrant
French, who probably will not accept even the shrunken
or pygmy dramatist I have called "French Shakespeare."
Frank Kermode speaks of "the fantastic range of possibili-
ties" that are explored by Shakespeare's tragedies, and
that seems to me precisely right. Who can defend herself
or himself, if that self has any literary possibilities whatso-
ever, from what truly is a fantastic range of possibilities,
larger than any single one of us can hope to apprehend. Re-
senters of canonical literature are nothing more or less than
deniers of Shakespeare. They are not social revolutionaries
or even cultural rebels. They are sufferers of the anxieties
of Shakespeare's influence.
Oscar Wilde sublimely remarked that "all bad poetry is sin-
cere." Doubtless it would be wrong to say that all great po-
etry is insincere, but of course almost all of it necessarily
tells lies, fictions essential to literary art. Authentic, high
literature relies upon troping, a turning away not only from
the literal but from prior tropes. Like criticism, which is
either part of literature or nothing at all, great writing is
always at work strongly (or weakly) misreading previous
writing. Any stance that anyone takes up towards a meta-
phorical work will itself be metaphorical. My useful (for
me) decades-long critical quarrel with Paul de Man, a ra-
diant intelligence, finally centered upon just the conten-
tion stated in the previous sentence. He insisted that an
epistemological stance in regard to a literary work was the
only way out of the tropological labyrinth, while I replied
that such a stance was no more or less a trope than any
other. Irony, in its prime sense of allegory, saying one thing
while suggesting another, is the epistemological trope-of-
tropes, and for de Man constituted the condition of liter-
xx Preface
ary language itself, producing that "permanent parabasis
of meaning" studied by deconstructionists.
When is Shakespeare sincere? That absurd question re-
turns us to the curious fiction that Shakespeare and nature
are everywhere the same. I myself was a victim of that fic-
tion when I denied, in this book, that Shakespeare ever
experienced any anxiety of influence in regard to his prime
precursor and rival Ovidian, Christopher Marlowe, only two
months or so older than Shakespeare but the dominant
London playwright from 1587 until his violent death in
1593, aged twenty-nine. In 1587, Shakespeare went up
from Stratford to London, and perhaps began as a printer's
apprentice. This may have given him an aversion for proof-
reading (having held such a job, in my early youth, I have
been a dreadful reader of my own proofs in consequence).
Certainly Shakespeare seems never to have read proof even
for "authorized" quartos, except for Venus and Adonis and
The Rape of Lucrece, both dedicated to his patron (some
think also his lover), the Earl of Southhampton. After
being a printer's devil, Shakespeare may have begun in the
theater as a prompter's assistant, and went on to become
an actor before writing for the stage. Marlowe, though like
Shakespeare the son of an artisan, had a university educa-
tion and doubtless would have scorned acting, a socially
ambiguous profession at that time.
Ben Jonson, the other great playwright of the era of
Marlowe and Shakespeare, abandoned acting after he
became established, but Shakespeare certainly did not,
though we have only limited information as to his actor's
career. Neither a clown, nor a hero, nor a villain in his
roles, Shakespeare seems to have been respected as what
we now, rather oddly, call a "character actor." We know that
he played the Ghost in Hamlet, and old Adam in As You
Like It, and several kings, and we can suspect that he acted
the Player-King in Hamlet, a natural doubling. Shakespeare
Preface xxi
perhaps gave up acting when he was forty, about the time
that he composed MeasureFor Measure and Othello. Meredith
Anne Skura's remarkable Shakespeare the Actor and the Pur-
poses of Playing (1993) centers upon the plays' awareness
of the pride and degradation of being an actor, an overt,
narcissistic ambivalence that may not have been entirely
Shakespeare's own but that appears crucial to his art. Chris-
topher Marlowe certainly was crucial to Shakespeare's art
from the early tetralogy of the three parts of Henry VI and
Richard III (1589-93) through Titus Andronicus (1594)
until Shakespeare surmounted Marlowe's Edward II in
Richard II (1595), two years after Marlowe was murdered
in a tavern brawl, probably by orders of the government,
whom Marlowe had served as what we now call an intelli-
gence agent.
It is hardly possible that Marlowe and Shakespeare did
not know one another personally, since they shared four
years of rivalry in writing for the London stage. Shake-
speare, much more impressive in his early comedies than
in his first histories or his first tragedy, emerged into an
aesthetic realm sublimely beyond Marlowe's when he
began to fashion the great roles that owe nothing to
Marlowe's superb caricatures, such as Tamburlaine, and
Barabas, hero-villain of The Jew of Malta. Richard III, and
Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus, are altogether Mar-
lovian. Richard II is somewhere in between Marlowe's Ed-
ward II and Hamlet; but Juliet and Mercutio, Bottom and
Puck, Shylock and Falstaff began to make Marlowe seem
rudimentary. Compared to mature Shakespeare, Marlowe
is still an extraordinary poet, yet no dramatist at all. But
to say, as I did in this book, that Shakespeare swallowed
up Marlowe the way a whale scoops up a minnow was to
ignore the extraordinary case of indigestion that Marlowe
caused the Moby-Dick of all playwrights. Marlowe never
developed, and never would have, even had he seen
xxii Preface
thirty. Shakespeare was an extravagant developer, experi-
menting down to the end. The Bible and Chaucer taught
Shakespeare some of his secrets in representing human
beings, while Marlowe had little interest in what Dr.
Johnson was to call "just representations of general na-
ture." And yet Marlowe haunted Shakespeare, who defen-
sively parodied his forerunner while resolving that the au-
thor of The Jew of Malta would become for him primarily
the way not to go, whether in life or in art. He must have
known, though, that Marlowe had emancipated the the-
ater from overt moralities and moralizings, and opened
the way to pleasing enormous audiences, who were not
trying to become better or wiser through attending a play.
Russell Fraser, in his Young Shakespeare (1988), rightly says
that, with Marlowe, "Shakespeare's story begins," and adds
that Shakespeare's KingJohn is too wounded by Marlowe
to be a success, which may be true. Titus Andronicus I
can read only as a deliberate send-up both of Marlowe's
friend, Thomas Kyd, and of Marlowe himself, but most
Shakespeare scholars argue otherwise. Yet what is Aaron
the Moor if not a monstrous blow-up of Marlowe's Bar-
abas? Even Shylock, despite Shakespeare's equivocal anti-
Semitism, is a reaction-formation to Marlowe's cartoonish
Jew of Malta, who hardly could say "If you prick us, do
we not bleed?," just as Shylock would not cry out "some-
times I go about and poison wells."
I never meant by "the anxiety of influence" a Freudian
Oedipal rivalry, despite a rhetorical flourish or two in this
book. A Shakespearean reading of Freud, which I favor
over a Freudian reading of Shakespeare or anyone else,
reveals that Freud suffered from a Hamlet complex (the
true name of the Oedipus Complex) or an anxiety of in-
fluence in regard to Shakespeare. Since I have argued this
matter at some length in a recent book (The Western Canon,
1994), I need say little about it here, except to murmur
Preface xxiii
again how weakly misread The Anxiety ofInfluence has been,
and continues to be. Any adequate reader of this book,
which means anyone of some literary sensibility who is not
a commissar or an ideologue, Left or Right, will see that
influence-anxiety does not so much concern the forerun-
ner but rather is an anxiety achieved in and by the story,
novel, play, poem, or essay. The anxiety mayor may not be
internalized by the later writer, depending upon tempera-
ment and circumstances, yet that hardly matters: the strong
poem is the achieved anxiety. "Influence" is a metaphor, one
that implicates a matrix of relationships-imagistic, tempo-
ral, spiritual, psychological-all of them ultimately defen-
sive in their nature. What matters most (and it is the cen-
tral point of this book) is that the anxiety of influence comes
out of a complex act of strong misreading, a creative in-
terpretation that I call "poetic misprision." What writers
may experience as anxiety, and what their works are
compelled to manifest, are the consequence of poetic mis-
prision, rather than the cause of it. The strong misread-
ing comes first; there must be a profound act of read-
ing that is a kind of falling in love with a literary work.
That reading is likely to be idiosyncratic, and it is almost
certain to be ambivalent, though the ambivalence may be
veiled. Without Keats's reading of Shakespeare, Milton,
and Wordsworth, we could not have Keats's odes and
sonnets and his two Hyperions. Without Tennyson's read-
ing of Keats, we would have almost no Tennyson. Wallace
Stevens, hostile to all suggestions that he owed anything
to his reading of precursor poets, would have left us
nothing of value but for Walt Whitman, whom Stevens
sometimes scorned, almost never overtly imitated, yet
uncannily resurrected:
Sigh for me, night-wind, in the noisy leaves of the oak.
I am tired. Sleep for me, heaven over the hill.
Shout for me, loudly and loudly, joyful sun, when you rise.
xxiv Preface
In ways that need not be doctrinal, strong poems are always
omens of resurrection. The dead mayor may not return,
but their voice comes alive, paradoxically never by mere
imitation, but in the agonistic misprision performed upon
powerful forerunners by only the most gifted of their suc-
cessors. Ibsen loathed influence more perhaps than anyone
else, particularly since his authentic forerunner was Shake-
speare, much more than Goethe. This horror of contami-
nation by Shakespeare fortunately found its best Ibsenite
expression in the multiple ways the Norse playwright dis-
covered for evading Shakespeare. Mrs. Alving in Ghosts
seems at first to have nothing Shakespearean about her,
but her extraordinary capacity for willing changes in her-
self is nothing if not Shakespearean, relying as it does upon
a Shakespearean and very subtle mode of foregrounding.
Hedda Gabler, as much as Dostoevsky's Svidrigailov and
Stavrogin, finds her ancestors in those pioneer nihilists,
lago and the Edmund of King Lear. Still intoxicated by the
High Romantic poets when I wrote The Anxiety of Influence,
I tried to confine the phenomenon of creative misprision
to post-Enlightenment writers, a false emphasis that I cor-
rected in A Map of Misreading and subsequent books. The
irony of one era cannot be the irony of another, but influ-
ence-anxieties are embedded in the agonistic basis of all
imaginative literature. Agon or the contest for aesthetic
supremacy was very overt in ancient Greek literature, but
this has been a difference of degree rather than of kind
between different cultures. Plato's contest with Homer
is the central agon of Western literature, but there are
many rival struggles, down to the parodistic matches be-
tween Hemingway and his precursors, and the followers of
Hemingway with the master.
Preface xxv
Cultural belatedness is never acceptable to a major
writer, though Borges made a career out of exploiting his
secondariness. Belatedness seems to me not a historical
condition at all, but one that belongs to the literary situa-
tion as such. Resentful historicists of several persuasions-
stemming from Marx, Foucault, and political feminism-
now study literature essentially as peripheral social history.
What has been discarded is the reader's solitude, a subjec-
tivity that has been rejected because it supposedly possesses
"no social being." Tony Kushner, the dramatist of Angels
in America, generously assigns his authorship to many
others, a curious literalization on his part of Brecht's pla-
giaristic stance. Peculiar as this may be, it is clarity itself
compared to the "French Shakespeare" that now dominates
the ruined shards of the Anglo-American academic world.
Shakespeare's solitude has vanished, and has been replaced
by a playwright whose work is supposed to overthrow the
power-systems of the Renaissance world, whether based on
class or gender. This peculiar, rather desperate view of
Shakespeare purports to be revolutionary but pragmatically
amounts to substituting highly selective contexts for the
actual Shakespearean text. We know nothing authentic
about Shakespeare's politics, or his religion, or his social
outlook, and heaping up extraneous contexts has served
mostly to enhance the resentments of the already resent-
ful. Our belatedness evidently exceeds Shakespeare's by
more than the burden of our four centuries of additional
An awareness of the anxiety of influence-our own, in
regard to Shakespeare-might partly cleanse us of the re-
sentments of a scholarly belatedness. Historicizing, politi-
cizing, even feminizing Shakespeare-all are redundant
operations: Shakespeare always was there before us. He
emancipated no one (that we know of) from the power-
xxvi Preface
structures of his own day, and cannot liberate us from any
societal enclosures in our current squalor. If you quarry
Shakespeare for ultimates, you emerge with nothing, and
you are in danger of pragmatically equating him with his
own superb nihilists. What are his energies? Was his rela-
tion to Marlowe, beyond that of aesthetic rivalry, somehow
part of the social energies of their shared era? I would ven-
ture that, far more than any other writer since the pre-
Socratic sages, Shakespeare's energies so fuse rhetoric, psy-
chology, and cosmology that we cannot distinguish them
from one another in his greatest plays. They are one en-
tity for him, as they were for Empedocles and the Sophists
who followed Empedocles. A purely rhetorical criticism, a
psychological reductiveness, a cosmological perspective-
none of these alone can hope to comprehend Shakespeare,
or any other writer who begins to approach his eminence.
More than any other purely secular author, Shakespeare
makes history far more than history makes Shakespeare.
Returning Shakespeare to history is a disheartened en-
deavour, and to a considerable degree an ahistorical adven-
ture. What is literary history, or social history for that matter?
Perspectivism, with all its entrapments, dominates "history,"
as Nietzsche eloquently indicated in his essay on the use
and abuse of history for life, one of my starting points for
what became The Anxiety of Influence.
Emerson, who chose his essay "History" to lead off Es-
says: First Series, memorably advised us that biography is
always the prior mode:
We are always coming up with the emphatic facts of history
in our private experience, and verifying them here. All history
becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no his-
tory; only biography. Every mind must know the whole lesson
for itself,-must go over the whole ground. What it does not
see, what it does not live, it will not know. What the former
age has epitomized into a formula or rule for manipular con-
Preface xxvii
venience, it will lose all the good of verifying for itself, by
means of the wall of that rule. Somewhere, sometime, it will
demand and find compensation for that loss by doing the work
Biographical criticism, long out of fashion, scarcely
works for Shakespeare, about whom we know only exter-
nals, except for the Sonnets, where we never can be cer-
tain what is formal and what is not. But a good biogra-
phy of Shakespeare, like Russell Fraser's, is preferable
to any historicism, because at least we are alone with
Shakespeare and Fraser, rather than being propagan-
dized by an academic sect or coven. Even better is the
only good novel written about Shakespeare, Anthony
Burgess's Joycean Nothing Like the Sun, where we are re-
turned to the library scene in Ulysses, with its fecund
speculations about Shakespeare's relation to Hamlet.
Joyce, Burgess, and Fraser in their different ways ac-
knowledge the contingency that Shakespeare imposes
upon us, which is that we are so influenced by him that
we cannot get outside of him. Criticism necessarily fails
when it deludes itself into the smugness of not seeing
that we remain enclosed by Shakespeare. The only in-
struments by which we can examine him were either
invented or perfected by Shakespeare himself. Wittgen-
stein, who disliked Shakespeare, tried to defend philoso-
phy from the best mind we can know by insisting that
Shakespeare was less a writer than he was "a creator of
language." It would be nearer the truth to say that Fal-
staff, Hamlet, and Iago are creators of language, while
Shakespeare, by their means, created us. Language, de-
spite Heidegger and his French flock, does not do the
thinking for Shakespeare, who more than any other
writer, or any other person that we know of, thought
everything through again for himself. Shakespeare did
not think one thought and one thought only; rather
xxviii Preface
scandalously, he thought all thoughts, for all of us. A new
Bardolatry is not the issue, nor is hyperbole possible when
we seek to estimate Shakespeare's influence during the four
centuries since his death. Doubtless Shakespeare, at heart
always a player, conceived every part he ever wrote as a role
for a specific actor, but it is an evasion now to regard them
as roles only, since they have become roles for us, whether
we are players or not. When we are born, we cry that we are
come unto this great stage of fools. Lear echoes the Wisdom
of Solomon, but the Scriptural authority for the pronounce-
ment is Shakespeare's and not the Bible's. We are fools of
time bound for the undiscovered country, more than we are
children of God returning to heaven. The issue is not be-
lief but our human nature, so intensified by Shakespeare as
to be his re-invention. How can we historicize Shakespeare
if we are children of Shakespeare, mapping our origins and
our horizons in his diction, in his astonishing vocabulary of
some 22,000 separate words?
To say that Shakespeare and poetic influence are nearly
identical is not very different from observing that Shake-
speare is the western literary canon. Some would argue that
"aesthetic value" is an invention of Kant's, but pragmati-
cally it is the aesthetic supremacy of Shakespeare that over-
determines our judgment of literary value. In Hazlitt's
superb essay, "On Poetry in General," there are about
twenty citations of Shakespeare, but even Hazlitt may not
have been aware of how Shakespearean his cognition had
We see the thing ourselves, and show it to others as we feel it
to exist, and as, in spite of ourselves, we are compelled to think
of it. The imagination, by thus embodying and turning them
to shape, gives an obvious relief to the indistinct and impor-
Preface xxix
tunate cravings of the will.-We do not wish the thing to be
so; but we wish it to appear such as it is. For knowledge is
conscious power; and the mind is no longer, in this case, the
dupe, though it may be the victim of vice or folly.
"On Poetry in General" twice quotes from Macbeth, yet
Macbeth in particular certainly is not Hazlitt's subject in
the essay. Still, this passage concerns not imagination in
general, but Macbeth's dangerously proleptic imagination,
which is hallucinatory and which dominates Macbeth's con-
sciousness. Hazlitt is purging himself of Macbeth's will, by
means of Shakespeare's art, which both contaminates and
cures Hazlitt. After Dr. Johnson, there is no finer critic in
the language than Hazlitt, who nevertheless yields to
Shakespeare's influence without knowing that he has
The judgment, even the taste, of Shakespeare's contem-
porary audiences scarcely differs from our own. Hamlet
and Falstaff were Shakespeare's greatest successes then, as
they are now. Ben Jonson and nearly every other drama-
tist of the period from 1590 through 1630 complained
bitterly about their audiences, but we have no complaints
from Shakespeare about his reception, as opposed to how
his actors performed him. All of our evidence suggests that
Shakespeare's influence began almost immediately and has
prevailed these four centuries since he died. If there ever
has been a universal literary art, that art is Shakespeare's,
an art that seemed nature to his contemporaries, and that
has become nature for us. If there is any mystery to Shake-
speare, it is in his large usurpation of "nature" and of all
literary art before him that, to him, seemed useful for his
purposes. Ovid, Chaucer, and Marlowe fused into Shake-
speare's composite precursor, as his contemporaries evi-
dently understood. They seem to have understood also that
Shakespeare established a new norm for representation.
xxx Preface
"Distinct," as a noun meaning a separate person or thing,
is very rare, and may have been invented by Shakespeare
for his elegy, "The Phoenix and Turtle":
So they loved as love in twain
Had the essence but in one,
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.
Dryden, in the Preface to his "corrected" version of
Troilus and Cressida (1679), says that Shakespeare must be
allowed "to have made his characters distinct," an accurate
acknowledgment taken up by Dr. Johnson in his Preface
to his edition of Shakespeare (1765). Johnson improves
upon Dryden: "Characters thus ample and general were
not easily discriminated and preserved, yet perhaps no poet
ever kept his personages more distinct from each other."
"Distinct" is the center of praise here, and marks Shake-
speare's endless power of influencing all representation
since. No one before or since has had so acute an ear,
inner and outer, and has so varied the voices of his char-
acters, rendering them so consistently distinct. Once again
we confront the strength of Shakespeare's usurpations,
both of nature and of art. The anxiety of influence, as a
critical idea, can confront no more severe test than Shake-
speare's total freedom of representation, once he had re-
vised the Marlovian hero-villain into something light years
beyond Marlowe's interests and aspirations. I return to
Shakespeare's agon with Marlowe in order to see what il-
lumination Shakespeare's triumph can bring both to our
understanding of his "distinct" characterization and of the
process of poetic influence itself.
Marlowe is so far from representing either human char-
acter or human personality that he becomes grotesque
when read against mature Shakespeare. Like the Edmund
of King Lear, whom I take as Shakespeare's LastJudgment
Preface xxxi
upon Marlowe, neither Marlowe nor his protagonists mani-
fest anything we can recognize as human affect. As a poet,
Marlowe is closer to Rimbaud and Hart Crane than he is
to Shakespeare. Rhetoricity or word-consciousness replaces
self-consciousness, and the normal mode becomes invoca-
tion or incantation. The true surprise of Marlowe's influ-
ence upon Shakespeare is that it lasted as long as it did; it
is still there in KingJohn (1594, at the latest), but it wanes
when the Bastard Faulconbridge concludes his lament
for John, and we pass to the world of Richard II (1595).
For some six years, after he composed the First Part of
Henry VI, Shakespeare had been creatively obsessed with
Marlowe, and that seems to me the most improbable real-
ity that we ever encounter in Shakespeare. What was it that
fascinated him, in his relationship to the unlikeliest pre-
cursor he could have been found by, and what misprision
of Marlowe kept Marlowe alive in Shakespeare for so long?
Marlowe's overwhelming importance as the great formal
innovator in Elizabethan drama is not in question. His
"mighty line," the "brave sublunary things" of his exalted
rhetoric, and his emancipation of the theater from its theo-
logical moral heritage were all bound to influence Shake-
speare,just as they influenced even BenJonson. But Jonson
was not haunted by Marlowe; Shakespeare was, for at least
six years, and then paid a final tribute to Marlowe in As
You Like It (1599), the least Marlovian of all possible plays,
composed six years after Marlowe's murder. I have sug-
gested already that in King Lear (1605), Shakespeare takes
a sly, final backward glance at Marlowe in Edmund, the
most sophisticated and coldest of all Shakespearean vil-
lains. Long after Marlowe was exorcised, Shakespeare re-
tained the prime resource of the hero-villain, who had
been crudely Marlovian in Richard III, but is totally non-
Marlovian in Macbeth. Doubtless the Bible, Ovid, and
Chaucer were deeper and more fecund influences upon
xxxii Preface
Shakespeare, the master of characterization, but only
Marlowe inspired in him both ambivalence and anxiety. It
is impossible that Shakespeare and Marlowe did not know
one another personally, particularly from 1590 to May 1593
(when Marlowe was killed), years in which Tamburlaine,
The Jew of Malta, and Edward II were being played in Lon-
don against Henry VI, Titus Andronicus, and Richard III, all
of them Marlovian works. We have no anecdotes connect-
ing the two, so presumably they were not close friends, as
Shakespeare and Jonson were, or even good acquain-
tances, as Shakespeare and George Chapman probably
were. But Marlowe's literary circle-Chapman, Kyd,
Nashe-were all known to Shakespeare; there were no
more than two dozen playwrights supplying the acting
companies during the early 1590s. Anthony Burgess, in his
posthumously published A Dead Man in Deptford, his at-
tempt to do for Marlowe what he had done for a fictional-
ized Shakespeare in Nothing Like the Sun, unfortunately
creates only one conversation between Shakespeare and
Marlowe, concerning their rather unlikely joint labor upon
Henry VI, Part One. Adding to that creation is beyond me,
but I want to use our intertextual evidence to get as close
to the poetic version of such a conversation as I can.
Marlowe is an aggressive dramatist, but not a subtle one.
His "atheism" or "Epicureanism," as defined by his contem-
poraries, is expressed by Tamburlaine and Barabas, in ways
that we find equivocal, whether as faith or as disbelief. But
Marlowe's sheer drive is unmistakable; the first part of
Tamburlaine and The Jew of Malta move with a remorseless
energy, very difficult for an audience (or an aspiring dra-
matist) to resist. Shakespeare in time learned how to form
a play with an even fiercer drive; more than DoctorFaustus,
Macbeth is an economical shot out of hell. We do not asso-
ciate Shakespeare with any particular rhetorical trope, un-
like Marlowe, who is synonomous with hyperbole. Shake-
Preface xxxiii
speare ironizes and qualifies his overreachers, while his
own, uncanny mastery of language, his extraordinary,
Mozartean facility of composition, makes it unlikely that
he was enthralled by Marlowe's language alone. There are
signs of acute ambivalence even in Shakespeare's earliest
Marlovianism, but something in Marlowe would not let
Shakespeare go before 1593, at the earliest.
The speeches of Marlowe's protagonists move with such
rapidity that we feel they (and Marlowe) are in a great
hurry, not necessarily to get anywhere, but to dominate us
through the power of their rhetoric. This is what the Aus-
tralian poet A. D. Hope has called, following Tamburlaine,
"the argument of arms, " which holds that the struggle for
supreme power is central both to poetry and to warfare.
Marlowe's hyperboles fuse the pen and the sword, in a
union less phallic than we are likely, in our era, to suppose.
Phantasmagorias of power, Marlowe's staple, have very little
to do with sexual possession, but catalog instead the infi-
nite inventory of an endless will, a more-than-imperial will.
Such an inventory piles up all manner of delights, in a
mode of enticement imitated byJonson's Volpone and Sir
Epicure Mammon, but all the commodities thus heaped
together, women included, are there as trophies of domi-
nation. The rhetorical drive, in Marlowe, is identical with
the aggressivity of warfare, yet that seems an understate-
ment in regard to the most hyperbolical of poet-dramatists.
Again, that makes him an enemy-brother, an Edmund to
Shakespeare's Edgar. If we are to account for Marlowe
having stayed so long in Shakespeare's work, we can find
it only in the realm of the antithetical.
Marlowe was the star of the "University Wits" (Lyly,
Peele, Greene, Lodge, Nashe), who were socially superior
to the actor-playwrights Shakespeare andJonson. Ifwe add
to this Marlowe's priority over Shakespeare, in every genre
except comedy, then Marlowe very likely would have been
xxxiv Preface
a stimulating burden for the apprentice Shakespeare. And
despite a peculiar tendency of modern scholars to Chris-
tianize Marlowe's plays, Shakespeare must have heard in
them their curious "natural religion" (to call it that) which
is not easily reconciled with Protestant Christianity.
Tamburlaine, the scourge of God, performs his office on
behalf of a semi-Moloch who appears to relish vast burned
offerings of entire cities and their populations. It would
be absurd, on the basis of Shakespeare's thirty-eight plays,
to announce their dramatist's religious stance, whether
pious, skeptical, or nihilistic. But Shakespeare seems to
have a clear idea of Marlowe's religion when his portrait
of Marlowe, the Edmund of King Lear, invokes Nature as
his goddess, and urges the gods to stand up for bastards.
Edmund's power over his dupes-Edgar and Gloucester in
one mode, Regan and Goneril in the other-is a recall of
Tamburlaine's extraordinary power of "pathetical persua-
sion," not only over his supporters and his enemies, and
his beloved Zenocrate, but over Marlowe's large and en-
thralled audiences. Shakespeare doubtless had watched
Marlowe played, and wondered at the wholly new phenom-
enon of two to three thousand spectators emotionally cap-
tured by the actor Alleyn's bombastic declamation of
Marlowe's hyperboles. Something unexpected had entered
English stage history, and Shakespeare must have under-
stood that Marlowe's and Kyd's speaking cartoons were first
steps towards a different kind of playing. Origins are of
peculiar importance for strong writers. No great poet ever
has journeyed as far from his origins as Shakespeare did,
and there are no more backward glances at Marlowe after
Edgar slays Edmund (shall we read that as the irony of
Shakespeare finally ending Marlowe?), and we pass on to
the final tragedies and the romances.
Marlowe, for Shakespeare, was primarily a personal image
of the dramatist's power over the audience, a power only
Preface xxxv
uneasily allied to traditional morality, societal constraints,
or orthodox pieties. Freedom, the poet-playwright's freedom
from what for Marlowe were irrelevant expectations, was his
precursor's largest legacy to Shakespeare. Marlowe's free-
dom was expressed by his personality perhaps as much as
by the language of his plays, with catastrophic consequences.
Shakespeare, on the surface one of the least colorful of
personalities, conveyed his freedom much more subtly, not
only in the language of his plays but in their thinking, and
in their characters' thoughts and emotions. There remains
the stubborn problem of how much Shakespeare was in con-
trol of his memories of Marlowe's language. After Henry VI,
an ironic inflection almost invariably conditions the Mar-
lovian recalls, and yet many of these are less allusive than
they are something else, repetitions perhaps, usually in a
finer tone. The fascination with Marlowe remained; one
could almost term it a seduction by Marlowe. Shakespeare's
freedom manifested itself multivalently, producing the pro-
foundly complex triumphs of Falstaff, Hamlet, and lago,
each a cosmos exposing Tamburlaine, Faustus, and Barabas
as caricatures. But what larger provocation did Shakespeare
have for his invention of the human than Marlowe's emo-
tional power as a mere cartoonist? Talbot in Shakespeare's
Henry VI is only a cartoon, as are Aaron the Moor and
Richard III, but as caricatures they carried on Marlowe's
kind of success. Monsters and puppets, given high, presump-
tive language, were sufficient to move audiences about as
much as Marlowe had moved them. Shakespeare desired not
only to move them still more, but to take them into the in-
terior with him. The growing inner self, our incessant pre-
dicament, is more a Shakespearean than a Lutheran or Cal-
vinist invention. Montaigne shares with Shakespeare the
prestige of explorer here, and perhaps contributed to
Hamlet's self through the medium ofJohn Florio's manu-
script of his ongoing translation. I return to Shakespeare's
xxxvi Preface
patience with his audience in contrast to his impatience
with his actors. Shakespeare's audience had first been
Marlowe's and, to a lesser extent, Kyd's. They had prompted
Shakespeare, and as he seems to have understood, they had
prepared Shakespeare's audience for him. The freedom of
the poet-dramatist to some degree had to be granted by
his audience.
Sir Francis Bacon, considering "the action of the the-
atre," brilliantly tells us: "Certain it is, though a great
secret in nature, that the minds of men in company are
more open to affections and impressions than when
alone." Shakespeare exploits this realization throughout his
work, and doubtless reflected on how different, and how
similar, an audience is to a congregation, an army, or a
crowd addressed by a politician. The school where that re-
flection began almost certainly, as I have said, was a Mar-
lovian audience, and so the first lesson would have empha-
sized the power of the auditory. A Midsummer Night's Dream,
with its highly un-Marlovian Bottom, has little of Marlowe
in it except for Shakespeare's extraordinary mastery in
having the auditory dimension dominate over the visual,
in what, as much as The Tempest, is a visionary play. But The
Tempest, like The Winter's Tale, plays as much upon what the
audience sees or doesn't quite see as upon what they hear.
We are so far away from Marlowe in the later Shakespeare
that we can be tempted to forget the master's lesson that
the poet's freedom depends upon an auditory engulfment
of the playgoers. Shakespeare does not forget, and except
for certain uncanny moments, his internalization of the
Marlovian music is incessant. We are back at the origin
again, with the audiences that Tamburlaine seduced, while
Shakespeare listened and saw, and analyzed the elements
of the seduction, which worked upon literate and illiter-
ate alike. There, I assume, is another clue as to why Mar-
lowe was so difficult for Shakespeare to exorcise. Brave,
Preface xxxvii
vaunting passages had a tendency to sound Marlovian even
when they were not at all like Marlowe, in style or rhythm
or texture. Poetry, or the poetic, discoursing of itself upon
a stage, had been usurped by Marlowe, and this was a very
formidable usurpation to overturn. Shakespeare had not
quite managed it even with Julius Caesar or with Richard II.
When Hotspur declaims in Henry IV; Part One, Shakespeare
takes care that we should note the muted ghost of Marlowe,
a ghost driven out in the agonistic interchanges between
Hal and Falstaff, ungrateful student and love-smitten
teacher. When Hamlet begins to speak, Marlowe is not
even a shade, and has ceased to trouble the heir who tran-
scended him. But that is certainly a long day's dying, and
the coda of the Marlovian Edmund testifies to Marlowe's
lingering into the Shakespearean twilight.
Shakespeare may have appreciated the irony that Mar-
lowe had alerted him to the psychology of dominating an
audience y the agency of eloquent cartoons who them-
selves were psychologically void. The greater irony is that
Shakespeare's path away from Marlowe was one ofprogres-
sive internalization, culminating in the hallucinatory imagi-
nation of Macbeth. This internalization begins very ineptly
in Richard III, where Shakespeare mars his drama by mawk-
ishly attempting to impart some pathos to the tyrant on the
eve of his death. But I will consider that engrossing, bad,
and revealing soliloquy of Richard III only after a glance
at Shakespeare's first plays.
Henry VI, in all its three parts, has few admirers, and
today scarcely sounds to us like Shakespeare. Only Jack
Cade's rebellion, in the Second Part, has a touch of life,
an oasis amidst a desert of sub-Marlovian rhetoric. This is
Shakespeare's starting point, and Tamburlaine and TheJew
of Malta seem always in his ear, except when he escapes to
what is already his own prose: "the first thing we do, let's
kill all the lawyers." Yet the plays did very well, a puzzle to
xxxviii Preface
us now primarily because almost all the characters speak
with Marlowe's voice. When the future Richard III emerges
in his full horror at the close of the Third Part, we still can
only barely distinguish his tones, as opposed to his senti-
ments, from anyone else's.
Richard III, like the Tamburlaine plays, has lost much of
its popularity, partly because it is too formal and stylized,
rather too rigidly Marlovian in its impact. Shakespeare
vainly attempts to break out of that rigidity, when Richard
wakes up out of a nightmare, just before going out to his
defeat and death at Bosworth Field. Without warning, we
are plunged into the abyss of Richard's precarious inter-
nalization, as Shakespeare attempts to alter the tyrant from
a Marlovian cartoon to a psychological portrait:
The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? Myself? There's none else by.
Richard loves Richard, that is, I [am] I.
Is there a murtherer here? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why-
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
o no! Alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain; yet I lie, I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well; fool, do not flatter:
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the highest degree;
Murther, stern murther, in the direst degree;
All several sins, all us'd in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, "Guilty! guilty!"
I shall despair; there is no creature loves me,
And if I die no soul will pity me.
Preface xxxix
And wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?
Methought the souls of all that I had murther'd
Came to my tent, and every one did threat
To-morrow's vengeance on the head of Richard.
It is not only the poorest writing in the play, but perhaps
the weakest passage in all Shakespeare. We cannot accom-
modate it, since there has not been the slightest sign of
an inner self in Richard before this disjointed soliloquy.
Having nearly completed another Marlovian drama, to
complement the Henry VI plays, Shakespeare rebelled, but
failed. He had as yet no sure procedure for invoking
inwardness, and his misprision of Marlowe here seems
to confuse the cartoon character with the psychologically
responsive audience, as though he would emulate his pre-
cursor but then go beyond him by dragging the audience
onto the stage. This agon with Marlowe is much more suc-
cessful in Aaron the Moor than in Richard III, but then
Aaron is the one ornament of Titus Andronicus.
That savage play, perhaps revised by Shakespeare from
an earlier version by George Peele, is an unwholesome
blend of an authentic tragedy-of-blood and what must be
a kind of send-up, a parodistic burlesque of Marlowe and
Kyd, with Aaron the Moor as a demonic answer to Barabas,
Jew of Malta. Deliberately alluding to the most outrageous
speech of Barabas, Shakespeare attempts to out-Marlowe
BARABAS: As for myself, I walk abroad a-nights,
And kill sick people groaning under walls.
Sometimes I go about and poison wells;
And now and then, to cherish Christian thieves,
I am content to lose some of my crowns,
That I may, walking in my gallery,
See 'em go pinion'd along by my door.
Being young, I studied physic, and began
xl Preface
To practise first upon the Italian;
There I enrich'd the priests with burials,
And always kept the sexton's arms in use
With digging graves and ringing dead men's knells.
And, after that, was I an engineer,
And in the wars 'twixt France and Germany,
Under the pretence of helping Charles the Fifth,
Slew friend and enemy with my stratagems:
Then after that was I an usurer,
And with extorting, cozening, forfeiting,
And tricks belonging unto brokery,
I fill'd the gaols with bankrupts in a year,
And with young orphans planted hospitals;
And every moon made some or other mad,
And now and then one hang himself for grief,
Pinning upon his breast a long great scroll
How I with interest tormented him.
But mark how I am blest for plaguing them:
I have as much coin as will buy the town.
But tell me now, how hast thou spent thy time?
AARON: Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.
Even now I curse the day-and yet I think
Few come within the compass of my curse-
Wherein I did not some notorious ill:
As kill a man, or else devise his death,
Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it,
Accuse some innocent, and forswear myself,
Set deadly enmity between two friends,
Make poor men's cattle break their necks,
Set fire on barns and haystalks in the night,
And bid the owners quench them with their tears.
Oft have I digg'd up dead men from their graves,
And set them upright at their dear friends' door,
Even when their sorrows almost was forgot,
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
"Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead."
Preface xli
But I have done a thousand dreadful things,
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed,
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.
How can you better that hanged man with the scroll
pinned upon his breast? Only by carving on dead men's
skins your cheerful greetings at their dear friends' door!
But the contest is still Marlowe's, even though Shake-
speare's grinning monster wins on points, as it were. The
agon is renewed in Shakespeare's King John, where the
dramatist betrays every anxiety at not being comfortable
with the mode his play has inherited. With one exception,
all the characters goad us to a frenzy of boredom with their
Marlovian declamations and lamentations. The particular
offender is the dreadful Constance, who famously invokes:
Death, death. 0 amiable lovely death!
Thou odoriferous stench! sound rottenness!
That first line now reads like a proleptic parody of Walt
Whitman. The second sounds like a Max Beerbohm parody
of Shakespeare. Out of the ghastly rhetoric of this play,
Shakespeare improbably but wonderfully plucks the first
of his superb originals, the Bastard Faulconbridge, a pow-
erfully serio-comic misreading of the Marlovian Machiavel,
and a giant step upon the way to Falstaff. Shakespeare's
daemonic language surges through the beautiful, laughing
speeches of the Bastard, who substitutes "commodity" for
Marlowe's "policy." The swerve from Marlowe introduces
fierce comedy into history, and converts the rhetoric of
overreaching into a magnificence of railery. Lewis, the
French Dauphin, upon being betrothed to Blanche of
Spain, gazes upon the lady with narcissistic satisfaction:
I do protest I never lov'd myself
Till now infixed I beheld myself
Drawn in the flattering table of her eye.
xlii Preface
Thrown this gobbet, the Bastard is off and running with it:
Drawn in the flattering table of her eye!
Hang'd in the frowning wrinkle of her brow!
And quarter'd in her heart! he doth espy
Himself love's traitor. This is pity now,
That hang'd and drawn and quarter'd there should be
In such a love so vile a lout as he.
Shakespeare surmounted KingJohn in Richard II, written
two years after Marlowe's death, and directly confronting
Marlowe's Edward II. Both plays have a royal protagonist,
and no hero, but Shakespeare's Richard, though he affiicts
us with ambivalence, is a superb lyric poet, while Marlowe's
Edward is rather dreary. Like a minor Hamlet, Richard II
has faith neither in language nor in himself, nor in any-
one else. Unlike Hamlet, this narcissistic monarch is any-
thing but charismatic, and is dominated by considerable
masochism. But though he owes some surface colorings to
Marlowe's Edward II, he is a psychological labyrinth, a king
with the soul of a poet, whereas Edward, as Harry Levin
observed, "is a king with the soul of an actor." Shakespeare,
who worked hard to become a gentleman commoner, was
both poet and actor, and rather severely divides the two
by making Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV, assume the
quick-change skill of the actor. The theatricality of Edward
II is quite showy, but his rhetoric is the emptiest of any
prime personage in Marlowe. It is difficult to evade the im-
pression that Marlowe is sadistic towards his Edward, not
only in his horrible murder by the ghoul Lightborne but
throughout the play. Shakespeare's Richard II, according
to Levin, plays his deposition scene even more as an actor
than Edward II ever plays, yet that is to undervalue Richard's
metaphysical poetry, which sparks and hastens his despair,
leaping ahead of Bolingbroke's more circumspect perfor-
mance. How are we to interpret Shakespeare's audacious
Preface xliii
allusion to Faustus's Helen, when Richard studies his re-
flection in the looking-glass he then shatters:
Was this Face the Face,
That every day, under his House-hold Roofe,
Did keep ten thousand men?
Launching a thousand ships and burning the topless tow-
ers of Ilium hardly could be more remote from Richard's
predicament, or more irrelevant to his rhetorical question.
The tag from Marlowe is gratuitous, and however we think
Richard intends it, Shakespeare flaunts it as an emblem of
his new freedom from Marlowe. Edward II is an aesthete,
but not a maker; Richard II is more persuasive in his
tragedy because divisions in the self have destroyed him.
Edward II loves pleasure, and Gaveston, but is otherwise
without personality. Richard II, doom-eager in his destruc-
tiveness, is petulant and no more admirable than Edward
II, but unlike Edward he has an inner self, and knows too
well how to express it.
The major mark of Shakespeare's emancipation from the
image of Marlowe is the difference between the two Jews,
Barabas and Shylock. Shakespeare's swerve away from his
own Marlovian origins gives him, and us, the equivocal tri-
umph of transforming Marlowe's Machiavels into comic
heroes, like the Bastard Faulconbridge, or comic villains,
like Shylock. I am aware that we do not play Shylock that
way, but, alas, we should. Rene Girard, in his A Theater of
Envy, rather oddly distinguishes between Barabas, as a sup-
posed reflection of English Renaissance anti-Semitism, and
Shylock, as a supposed challenge to that anti-Semitic myth.
That gets it the wrong way around: Barabas is at least a
grandly entertaining overreacher, akin to Marlowe himself,
while all the Christians and Moslems of the play are just
as wicked, but not as clever or vitalistic. When Barabas cries
out: "Sometimes I go about and poison wells," we scarcely
xliv Preface
are expected to believe the anti-Semitic myth. Barabas is
notJewish, but Marlovian, and Marlowe is rather more anti-
Christian than he is anti-jewish. But Shakespeare most cer-
tainly has written an anti-Semitic masterpiece, one in which
the forced conversion of Shylock, at Antonio's insistence,
is entirely Shakespeare's own invention, his own shocking
addition to the pound-of-flesh story. Indeed, I fear that
Shakespeare's revisionary triumph over Marlowe is to give
us a psychologically persuasive Jewish devil, rather than the
caricature, Barabas. "I'll show you aJew!" Shakespeare tri-
umphantly implies, while creating a personage far more
frightening than Marlowe's cardboard fiend. Shakespeare's
creative envy of Marlowe, so long his driving force, has
vanished in The Merchant of Venice. Barabas is Marlowe, but
Shylock has been the Jew throughout four centuries now,
and still has great power to hurt.
The coda to Shakespeare's exorcism of Marlowe is nei-
ther in Hotspur, who nevertheless is a glorious satire on
the Marlovian stance, or in Ancient Pistol's ranting paro-
dies of Tamburlaine. With superb irony, Shakespeare
crowds As You Like It, least Marlovian of plays, with allu-
sions to Marlowe, all of them decidedly out of context.
Overtly, the allusions are to Marlowe's lyric, "The Passion-
ate Shepherd to His Love," or to his unfinished Hero
and Leander, an Ovidian epyllion. But pragmatically they
concern Marlowe's death, and center on the rancid clown
Touchstone's wonderful sentence:
When a man's verses cannot be understood, nor a man's
good wit seconded with the forward child, understanding, it
strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little
The audience could hear in this Barabas's "Infinite riches
in a little room," and also a reference to Marlowe's mur-
der in a Deptford tavern, supposedly as a consequence of
Preface xlv
quarreling over the payment of the bill, "a great reckon-
ing, " but evidently at the orders of the royal Secret Service,
as Shakespeare may well have known. Charles Nicholl, in
his The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe, suggests
that Shakespeare:
... is saying that when a dead poet's reputation is mis-
handled and his work misunderstood, as Marlowe's now is, it
is like a kind of second death for him.
That seems right to me. Shakespeare, his struggle with
poetic influence fully resolved, subtly defends the defamed
Marlowe, and in a sense even elegizes him. Yet after the coda,
the irony of the epilogue: Edmund in King Lear. David Riggs,
in his BenJonson: A Life, confirms John Hollander's intuition
that Malvolio in Twelfth Night is, to some degree, a satire upon
Jonson, the "purge" administered by Shakespeare to Jonson
that is spoken of in The Return.fromParnassus, Part II Edmund
is far more than a satire upon anyone; he is a subtle refine-
ment upon Iago, and perhaps the greater villain, with even
more acute intelligence and with an icier contempt for all
his victims. But his nihilism, his charm, his genius, his "athe-
ism," his frightening freedom from all constraints, his pow-
ers of rhetorical persuasion, his refusal to be hypocritical, un-
like his mistresses, Goneril and Regan, suggest Marlowe. In
some respects the Bastard Edmund is a darker version of the
Bastard Faulconbridge, but with the familial loyalty and
patriotism inverted to their treasonous opposites. Unlike
Jonson-as-Malvolio, Marlowe-as-Edmund cannot be sup-
ported by external evidence, at least in the present state
of our knowledge. Yet, as a creative "misreading" or mis-
prision of Marlowe's actual personality and character, the
Edmund of King Learis Shakespeare's final, equivocal trib-
ute to his precursor's Machiavels.
We have no direct path into what is central in Shake-
speare, because he is a larger form of thought, of language,
xlvi Preface
and of feeling than any other we can come to know. It
is not that the greatest of his plays are plays; we are not
blocked from surmising what may be central in Marlowe
or in Jonson. With all their difficulties, Dante and Milton
and Wordsworth seem to yield many of their secrets to us,
if we but read them incessantly and with all our ardor. But
Shakespeare, while entertaining us at every possible level,
never permits us voyage to the undiscovered country of his
self. Borges thought that Shakespeare was selfless, and there-
fore Shakespeare was everyman. What we insist upon call-
ing "theory" dogmatizes that no one ever had or ever will
have a self of her or his own. That seems to me an unami-
able fiction. Is it only a Borgesian or amiable fiction to say
that Shakespeare is at once everyone and no one? Shake-
speare thought enough of his friend Ben Jonson to satirize
him as Malvolio, and was haunted enough by his acquain-
tance Christopher Marlowe to portray him, with marvelous
ambivalence, as Edmund. Did Shakespeare not feel concern
enough, interest and esteem enough, for himself, to put that
self on stage? He acted old men, or kings, or ghosts. Does
the Player-King in Hamlet speak for Shakespeare, or for
Hamlet? Is the survivor Edgar in some sense a representa-
tion of the survivor Shakespeare? Oscar Wilde might have
been interested in questions like these; no living scholar-
critic of Shakespeare would allow them. James Joyce, like
some others before and since, identified Hamlet with
Hamnet Shakespeare, the dramatist's only son, dead at
eleven. More than any other play by Shakespeare (or by
anyone else), Hamlet is an endless provocation to the world,
because the world has found an unsolved mystery in it.
A writer boundless to our meditation, Shakespeare never-
theless seems not to have cared to direct that meditation.
I know of only one strong clue to Shakespeare's track-
lessness: his long harboring of the image of Marlowe. Ovid
and Chaucer were safely remote in time; the forerunner
Preface xlvii
Marlowe was born just two months before Shakespeare,
who survived Marlowe by twenty-three years.
If Marlowe, to Shakespeare, primarily was an image of
the poet's dangerous freedom and of the playwright's dan-
gerous power over an audience, then the image would have
sufficed, and Shakespeare might have been content to re-
peat himself, once he had emancipated himself with Fal-
staff, Hamlet, and Rosalind. Some scholars argue that
Shakespeare moved from tragedy to what we call "ro-
mance" because of commercial pressure from rival drama-
tists. Shakespeare would take from anyone and everywhere,
with both fists, but his daemon or genius drove him, after
he had triumphed over Marlowe. Change, the only law
observed by his protagonists, was also the law of Shake-
speare's inwardness. All fictions aside, I cannot see any-
one representing an infinitely growing inner self, without
knowing it in all immediacy. There is very little change in
Marlowe: all his vaunters are one vaunter, his victims
one victim, his Machiavels one Nick. Tamburlaine, Barabas,
the Guise, even Faustus share the same rhetoric, and are
dizzy with the same desires. Shakespeare, swerving from
Marlowe, created distincts. Poetic influence has no greater
It Was A Great Marvel That They
Were In The Father Without Knowing Him
After he knew that he had fallen, outwards and
downwards, away from the Fullness, he tried to remember
what the Fullness had been.
He did remember, but found he was silent, and could
not tell the others.
He wanted to tell them that she leapt farthest for-
ward and fell into a passion apart from his embrace.
She was in great agony, and would have been swal-
lowed up by the sweetness, had she not reached a limit,
and stopped.
But the passion went on without her, and passed be-
yond the limit.
Sometimes he thought he was about to speak, but the
silence continued.
He wanted to say: "strengthless and female fruit."
.. A more severe,
More harassing master would extemporize
Subtler. more urgent proof that the theory
Of poetry is the theory of life.
As it is. in the intricate evasions of as.
STEVENS. An Ordinary Evening in New Haven
A Meditation upon Priority,
and a Synopsis
This short book offers a theory of poetry by way of a de-
scription of poetic influence, or the story of intra-poetic
relationships. One aim of this theory is corrective: to de-
idealize our accepted accounts of how one poet helps to
form another. Another aim, also corrective, is to try to
provide a poetics that will foster a more adequate practi-
cal criticism.
Poetic history, in this book's argument, is held to be in-
distinguishable from poetic influence, since strong poets
make that history by misreading one another, so as to
clear imaginative space for themselves.
My concern is only with strong poets, major figures
with the persistence to wrestle with their strong precur-
sors, even to the death. Weaker talents idealize; figures of
capable imagination appropriate for themselves. But noth-
ing is got for nothing, and self-appropriation involves the
immense anxieties of indebtedness, for what strong maker
desires the realization that he has failed to create himself?
Oscar Wilde, who knew he had failed as a poet because he
6 The Anxiety of Influence
lacked strength to overcome his anxiety of influence, knew
also the darker truths concerning influence. The Ballad of
Reading Gaol becomes an embarrassment to read, directly
one recognizes that every lustre it exhibits is reflected
from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner; and Wilde's lyr-
ics anthologize the whole of English High Romanticism.
Knowing this, and armed with his customary intelligence,
Wilde bitterly remarks in The Portrait of Mr. W. H.
that: "Influence is simply a transference of personality, a
mode of giving away what is most precious to one's self,
and its exercise produces a sense, and, it may be, a reality
of loss. Every disciple takes away something from his mas-
ter." This is the anxiety of influencing, yet no reversal in
this area is a true reversal. Two years later, Wilde refined
this bitterness in one of Lord Henry Wotton's elegant ob-
servations in The Picture of Dorian Gray, where he tells
Dorian that all influence is immoral:
Because to influence a person is to give him one's own
soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with
his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His
sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He be-
comes an echo of someone else's music, an actor of a part
that has not been written for him.
To apply Lord Henry's insight to Wilde, we need only
read Wilde's review of Pater's Appreciations, with its
splendidly self-deceptive closing observation that Pater
"has escaped disciples." Every major aesthetic conscious-
ness seems peculiarly more gifted at denying obligation as
the hungry generations go on treading one another down.
Stevens, a stronger heir of Pater than even Wilde was, is
revealingly vehement in his letters:
While, of course, I come down from the past, the past is
my own and not something marked Coleridge, Wordsworth,
Introduction 7
etc. I know of no one who has been particularly important
to me. My reality-imagination complex is entirely my own
even though I see it in others.
He might have said: "particularly because I see it in
others," but poetic influence was hardly a subject where
Stevens' insights could center. Towards the end, his deni-
als became rather violent, and oddly humored. Writing to
the poet Richard Eberhart, he extends a sympathy all the
stronger for being self-sympathy:
I sympathize with your denial of any influence on my
part. This sort of thing always jars me because, in my own
case, I am not conscious of having been influenced by any-
body and have purposely held off from reading highly man-
nered people like Eliot and Pound so that I should not ab-
sorb anything, even unconsciously. But there is a kind of
critic who spends his time dissecting what he reads for
echoes, imitations, influences, as if no one was ever simply
himself but is always compounded of a lot of other people.
As for W. Blake, I think that this means Wilhelm Blake.
This view, that poetic influence scarcely exists, except
in furiously active pedants, is itself an illustration of one
way in which poetic influence is a variety of melancholy
or an anxiety-principle. Stevens was, as he insisted, a
highly individual poet, as much an American original as
Whitman or Dickinson, or his own contemporaries:
Pound, Williams, Moore. But poetic influence need not
make poets less original; as often it makes them more orig-
inal, though not therefore necessarily better. The pro-
fundities of poetic influence cannot be reduced to source-
study, to the history of ideas, to the patterning of images.
Poetic influence, or as I shall more frequently term it, po-
etic misprision, is necessarily the study of the life-cycle of
the poet-as-poet. When such study considers the context
8 The Anxiety of Influence
in which that life-cycle is enacted, it will be compelled to
examine simultaneously the relations between poets as
cases akin to what Freud called the family romance, and as
chapters in the history of modern revisionism, "modern"
meaning here post-Enlightenment. The modern poet, as
W. J. Bate shows in The Burden of the Past and the En-
glish Poet, is the inheritor of a melancholy engendered in
the mind of the Enlightenment by its skepticism of its
own double heritage of imaginative wealth, from the an-
cients and from the Renaissance masters. In this book I
largely neglect the area Bate has explored with great skill,
in order to center upon intra-poetic relationships as paral-
lels of family romance. Though I employ these parallels, I
do so as a deliberate revisionist of some of the Freudian
Nietzsche and Freud are, so far as I can tell, the prime
influences upon the theory of influence presented in this
book. Nietzsche is the prophet of the antithetical, and his
Genealogy of Morals is the profoundest study available to
me of the revisionary and ascetic strains in the aesthetic
temperament. Freud's investigations of the mechanisms of
defense and their ambivalent functionings provide the
clearest analogues I have found for the revisionary ratios
that govern intra-poetic relations. Yet, the theory of influ-
ence expounded here is un- Nietzschean in its deliberate
literalism, and in its Viconian insistence that priority in
divination is crucial for every strong poet, lest he dwindle
merely into a latecomer. My theory rejects also the quali-
fied Freudian optimism that happy substitution is possi-
ble, that a second chance can save us from the repetitive
quest for our earliest attachments. Poets as poets cannot
accept substitutions, and fight to the end to have their ini-
tial chance alone. Both Nietzsche and Freud underesti-
mated poets and poetry, yet each yielded more power to
phantasmagoria than it truly possesses. They too, despite
Introduction 9
their moral realism, over-idealized the imagination.
Nietzsche's disciple, Yeats, and Freud's disciple, Otto
Rank, show a greater awareness of the artist's fight against
art, and of the relation of this struggle to the artist's an-
tithetical battle against nature.
Freud recognized sublimation as the highest human
achievement, a recognition that allies him to Plato and
to the entire moral traditions of both Judaism and
Christianity. Freudian sublimation involves the
yielding-up of more primordial for more refined modes
of pleasure, which is to exalt the second chance above
the first. Freud's poem, in the view of this book, is not
severe enough, unlike the severe poems written by the
creative lives of the strong poets. To equate emotional
maturation with the discovery of acceptable substitutes
may be pragmatic wisdom, particularly in the realm of
Eros, but this is not the wisdom of the strong poets. The
surrendered dream is not merely a phantasmagoria of
endless gratification, but is the greatest of all human
illusions, the vision of immortality. IfWordsworth's Ode:
Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Child-
hood possessed only the wisdom found also in Freud,
then we could cease calling it "the Great Ode."
Wordsworth too saw repetition or second chance as es-
sential for development, and his ode admits that we can
redirect our needs by substitution or sublimation. But
the ode plangently also awakens into failure, and into
the creative mind's protest against time's tyranny. A
Wordsworthian critic, even one as loyal to Wordsworth
as Geoffrey Hartman, can insist upon clearly distin-
guishing between priority, as a concept from the natural
order, and authority, from the spiritual order, but
Wordsworth's ode declines to make this distinction. "By
seeking to overcome priority," Hartman wisely says, "art
fights nature on nature's own ground, and is bound to
lose." The argument of this book is that strong poets are
10 The Anxiety of Influence
condemned to just this unwisdom; Wordsworth's Great
Ode fights nature on nature's own ground, and suffers a
great defeat, even as it retains its greater dream. That
dream, in Wordsworth's ode, is shadowed by the anxiety
of influence, due to the greatness of the precursor-poem,
Milton's Lycidas, where the human refusal wholly to sub-
limate is even more rugged, despite the ostensible yielding
to Christian teachings of sublimation.
For every poet begins (however "unconsciously") by re-
belling more strongly against the consciousness of death's
necessity than all other men and women do. The young
citizen of poetry, or ephebe as Athens would have called
him, is already the anti-natural or antithetical man, and
from his start as a poet he quests for an impossible object,
as his precursor quested before him. That this quest en-
compasses necessarily the diminishment of poetry seems to
me an inevitable realization, one that accurate literary his-
tory must sustain. The great poets of the English Renais-
sance are not matched by their Enlightened descendants,
and the whole tradition of the post-Enlightenment, which
is Romanticism, shows a further decline in its Modernist
and post- Modernist heirs. The death of poetry will not be
hastened by any reader's broodings, yet it seems just to as-
sume that poetry in our tradition, when it dies, will be
self-slain, murdered by its own past strength. An implied
anguish throughout this book is that Romanticism, for all
its glories, may have been a vast visionary tragedy, the
self-baffled enterprise not of Prometheus but of blinded
Oedipus, who did not know that the Sphinx was his
Oedipus, blind, was on the path to oracular godhood,
and the strong poets have followed him by transforming
their blindness towards their precursors into the revision-
ary insights of their own work. The six revisionary move-
ments that I will trace in the strong poet's life-cycle could
Introduction 11
as well be more, and could take quite different names
than those I have employed. I have kept them to six, be-
cause these seem to be minimal and essential to my under-
standing of how one poet deviates from another. The
names, though arbitrary, carryon from various traditions
that have been central in Western imaginative life, and I
hope can be useful.
The greatest poet in our language is excluded from the
argument of this book for several reasons. One is neces-
sarily historical; Shakespeare belongs to the giant age be-
fore the flood, before the anxiety of influence became cen-
tral to poetic consciousness. Another has to do with the
contrast between dramatic and lyric form. As poetry has
become more subjective, the shadow cast by the precur-
sors has become more dominant. The main cause, though,
is that Shakespeare's prime precursor was Marlowe, a poet
very much smaller than his inheritor. Milton, with all his
strength, yet had to struggle, subtly and crucially, with a
major precursor in Spenser, and this struggle both formed
and malformed Milton. Coleridge, ephebe of Milton and
later of Wordsworth, would have been glad to find his
Marlowe in Cowper (or in the much weaker Bowles), but
influence cannot be willed. Shakespeare is the largest in-
stance in the language of a phenomenon that stands out-
side the concern of this book: the absolute absorption of
the precursor. Battle between strong equals, father and
son as mighty opposites, Laius and Oedipus at the cross-
roads; only this is my subject here, though some of the fa-
thers, as will be seen, are composite figures. That even the
strongest poets are subject to influences not poetical is ob-
vious even to me, but again my concern is only with the
poet in a poet, or the aboriginal poetic self.
A change like the one I propose in our ideas of inft u-
ence should help us read more accurately any group of
past poets who were contemporary with one another. To
12 The Anxiety of Influence
give one example, as misinterpreters of Keats, in their
poems, the Victorian disciples of Keats most notably in-
clude Tennyson, Arnold, Hopkins, and Rossetti. That
Tennyson triumphed in his long, hidden contest with
Keats, no one can assert absolutely, but his clear superior-
ity over Arnold, Hopkins, and Rossetti is due to his rela-
tive victory or at least holding of his own in contrast to
their partial defeats. Arnold's elegiac poetry uneasily
blends Keatsian style with anti-Romantic sentiment, while
Hopkins' strained intensities and convolutions of diction
and Rossetti's densely inlaid art are also at variance with
the burdens they seek to alleviate in their own poetic
selves. Similarly, in our time we need to look again at
Pound's unending match with Browning, as at Stevens'
long and largely hidden civil war with the major poets
of English and American Romanticism-Wordsworth,
Keats, Shelley, Emerson, and Whitman. As with the Vic-
torian Keatsians, these are instances among many, if a
more accurate story is to be told about poetic history.
This book's main purpose is necessarily to present one
reader's critical vision, in the context both of the criticism
and poetry of his own generation, where their current
crises most touch him, and in the context of his own anxi-
eties of influence. In the contemporary poems that most
move me, like the Corsons Inlet and Saliences of A. R.
Ammons and the Fragment and Soonest Mended of John
Ashbery, I can recognize a strength that battles against the
death of poetry, yet also the exhaustions of being a late-
comer. Similarly, in the contemporary criticism that clari-
fies for me my own evasions, in books like Allegory by
Angus Fletcher, Beyond Formalism by Geoffrey Hartman,
and Blindness and Insight by Paul de Man, I am made
aware of the mind's effort to overcome the impasse of For-
malist criticism, the barren moralizing that Archetypal
criticism has come to be, and the anti-humanistic plain
Introduction 13
dreariness of all those developments in European criticism
that have yet to demonstrate that they can aid in reading
anyone poem by any poet whatsoever. My Interchapter,
proposing a more antithetical practical criticism than any
we now have. is my response in this area of the contempo-
A theory of poetry that presents itself as a severe poem,
reliant upon aphorism. apothegm. and a quite personal
(though thoroughly traditional) mythic pattern. still may
be judged. and may ask to be judged, as argument. Every-
thing that makes up this book-parables. definitions, the
working-through of the revisionary ratios as mechanisms
of defense-intends to be part of a unified meditation on
the melancholy of the creative mind's desperate insistence
upon priority. Vico, who read all creation as a severe
poem. understood that priority in the natural order and
authority in the spiritual order had been one and had to
remain one. for poets, because only this harshness consti-
tuted Poetic Wisdom. Vico reduced both natural priority
and spiritual authority to property, a Hermetic reduction
that I recognize as the Ananke, the dreadful necessity still
governing the Western imagination.
Valentinus, second-century Gnostic speculator, came
out of Alexandria to teach the Pleroma, the Fullness of
thirty Aeons. manifold of Divinity: "It was a great marvel
that they were in the Father without knowing Him." To
search for where you already are is the most benighted of
quests, and the most fated. Each strong poet's Muse. his
Sophia. leaps as far out and down as can be, in a solipsistic
passion of quest. Valentinus posited a Limit, at which
quest ends. but no quest ends, if its context is Uncondi-
tioned Mind. the cosmos of the greatest post-Miltonic
poets. The Sophia of Valentinus recovered. wed again
within the Plerorna, and only her Passion or Dark Inten-
tion was separated out into our world, beyond the Limit.
14 The Anxiety of Influence
Into this Passion, the Dark Intention that Valentinus
called "strengthless and female fruit," the ephebe must
fall. If he emerges from it, however crippled and blinded,
he will be among the strong poets.
1. Clinamen, which is poetic misreading or misprision
proper; I take the word from Lucretius, where it means a
"swerve" of the atoms so as to make change possible in the
universe. A poet swerves away from his precursor, by so
reading his precursor's poem as to execute a clinamen in
relation to it. This appears as a corrective movement in
his own poem, which implies that the precursor poem
went accurately up to a certain point, but then should
have swerved, precisely in the direction that the new
poem moves.
2. Tessera, which is completion and antithesis; I take
the word not from mosaic-making, where it is still used,
but from the ancient mystery cults, where it meant a
token of recognition, the fragment say of a small pot
which with the other fragments would re-constitute the
vessel. A poet antithetically "completes" his precursor, by
so reading the parent-poem as to retain its terms but to
mean them in another sense, as though the precursor had
failed to go far enough.
3. Kenosis, which is a breaking-device similar to the de-
fense mechanisms our psyches employ against repetition
compulsions; kenosis then is a movement towards discon-
tinuity with the precursor. I take the word from St. Paul,
where it means the humbling or emptying-out of Jesus by
himself, when he accepts reduction from divine to human
status. The later poet, apparently emptying himself of his
own afflatus, his imaginative godhood, seems to humble
Introduction 15
himself as though he were ceasing to be a poet, but this
ebbing is so performed in relation to a precursor's poem-
of-ebbing that the precursor is emptied out also, and so
the later poem of deflation is not as absolute as it seems.
4. Daemonization, or a movement towards a personal-
ized Counter-Sublime, in reaction to the precursor's Sub-
lime; I take the term from general Neo-Platonic usage,
where an intermediary being, neither divine nor human,
enters into the adept to aid him. The later poet opens
himself to what he believes to be a power in the parent-
poem that does not belong to the parent proper, but to a
range of being just beyond that precursor. He does this,
in his poem, by so stationing its relation to the parent-
poem as to generalize away the uniqueness of the earlier
5. Askesis, or a movement of self-purgation which in-
tends the attainment of a state of solitude; I take the term,
general as it is, particularly from the practice of pre-Socra-
tic shamans like Empedocles. The later poet does not, as
in kenosis, undergo a revisionary movement of emptying,
but of curtailing; he yields up part of his own human and
imaginative endowment, so as to separate himself from
others, including the precursor, and he does this in his
poem by so stationing it in regard to the parent-poem as
to make that poem undergo an askesis too; the precursor's
endowment is also truncated.
6. Apophrades, or the return of the dead; I take the
word from the Athenian dismal or unlucky days upon
which the dead returned to reinhabit the houses in which
they had lived. The later poet, in his own final phase, al-
ready burdened by an imaginative solitude that is almost
a solipsism, holds his own poem so open again to the pre-
cursor's work that at first we might believe the wheel has
16 The Anxiety of Influence
come full circle, and that we are back in the later poet's
flooded apprenticeship, before his strength began to assert
itself in the revisionary ratios. But the poem is now held
open to the precursor, where once it was open, and the
uncanny effect is that the new poem's achievement makes
it seem to us, not as though the precursor were writing it,
but as though the later poet himself had written the pre-
cursor's characteristic work.
. . when you consider
the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest
swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,
not flinching into disguise or darkening....
Shelley speculated that poets of all ages contributed to
one Great Poem perpetually in progress. Borges remarks
that poets create their precursors. If the dead poets, as
Eliot insisted, constituted their successors' particular ad-
vance in knowledge, that knowledge is still their succes-
sors' creation, made by the living for the needs of the liv-
But poets, or at least the strongest among them, do not
read necessarily as even the strongest of critics read. Poets
are neither ideal nor common readers, neither Arnoldian
nor ]ohnsonian. They tend not to think, as they read:
"This is dead, this is living, in the poetry of X." Poets, by
the time they have grown strong, do not read the poetry
of X, for really strong poets can read only themselves. For
them, to be judicious is to be weak, and to compare, ex-
actly and fairly, is to be not elect. Milton's Satan, arche-
type of the modern poet at his strongest, becomes weak
when he reasons and compares, on Mount Niphates, and
so commences that process of decline culminating in Para-
20 The Anxiety of Influence
dise Regained, ending as the archetype of the modern
critic at his weakest.
Let us attempt the experiment (apparently frivolous) of
reading Paradise Lost as an allegory of the dilemma of the
modern poet, at his strongest. Satan is that modern poet,
while God is his dead but still embarrassingly potent and
present ancestor, or rather, ancestral poet. Adam is the po-
tentially strong modern poet, but at his weakest moment,
when he has yet to find his own voice. God has no Muse,
and needs none, since he is dead, his creativity being man-
ifested only in the past time of the poem. Of the living
poets in the poem, Satan has Sin, Adam has Eve, and Mil-
ton has only his Interior Paramour, an Emanation far
within that weeps incessantly for his sin, and that is in-
voked magnificently four times in the poem. Milton has
no name for her, though he invokes her under several;
but, as he says, "the meaning, not the Name I call." Satan,
a stronger poet even than Milton, has progressed beyond
invoking his Muse.
Why call Satan a modern poet? Because he shadows
forth gigantically a trouble at the core of Milton and of
Pope, a sorrow that purifies by isolation in Collins and
Gray, in Smart and in Cowper, emerging fully to stand
clear in Wordsworth, who is the exemplary Modern Poet,
the Poet proper. The incarnation of the Poetic Character
in Satan begins when Milton's story truly begins, with the
Incarnation of God's Son and Satan's rejection of that in-
carnation. Modern poetry begins in two declarations of
Satan: "We know no time when we were not as now" and
"To be weak is miserable, doing or suffering."
Let us adopt Milton's own sequence in the poem. Po-
etry begins with our awareness, not of a Fall, but that we
are falling. The poet is our chosen man, and his con-
sciousness of election comes as a curse; again, not "I am a
fallen man," but "I am Man, and I am falling"-or
Clinamen or Poetic Misprision 21
rather, "I was God, I was Man (for to a poet they were the
same), and I am falling, from myself." When this con-
sciousness of self is raised to an absolute pitch, then the
poet hits the floor of Hell. or rather, comes to the bottom
of the abyss, and by his impact there creates Hell. He says,
"I seem to have stopped falling; now I am fallen, conse-
quently, I lie here in Hell."
There and then, in this bad, he finds his good; he
chooses the heroic, to know damnation and to explore the
limits of the possible within it. The alternative is to re-
pent, to accept a God altogether other than the self,
wholly external to the possible. This God is cultural his-
tory, the dead poets, the embarrassments of a traditon
grown too wealthy to need anything more. But we, to un-
derstand the strong poet. must go further still than he can
go, back into the poise before the consciousness of falling
When Satan or the poet looks around him on the floor
of fire his falling self had kindled, he sees first a face he
only just recognizes, his best friend, Beelzebub, or the tal-
ented poet who never quite made it, and now never shall.
And, like the truly strong poet he is, Satan is interested in
the face of his best friend only to the extent that it reveals
to him the condition of his own countenance. Such lim-
ited interest mocks neither the poets we know, nor the
truly heroic Satan. If Beelzebub is that scarred, if he looks
that unlike the true form he left behind on the happy
fields of light, then Satan himself is hideously bereft of
beauty, doomed, like Walter Pater, to be a Caliban of Let-
ters, trapped in essential poverty. in imaginative need,
where once he was all but the wealthiest, and needed next
to nothing. But Satan, in the accursed strength of the
poet, refuses to brood upon this, and turns instead to his
task, which is to rally everything that remains.
This task, comprehensive and profoundly imaginative,
22 The Anxiety of Influence
includes everything that we could ascribe as motivation
for the writing of any poetry that is not strictly devotional
in its purposes. For why do men write poems? To rally
everything that remains, and not to sanctify nor pro-
pound. The heroism of endurance-of Milton's post-lap-
sarian Adam, and of the Son in Paradise Regained-is a
theme for Christian poetry, but only barely a heroism for
poets. We hear Milton again, celebrating the strong poet's
natural virtue, when Samson taunts Harapha: "bring up
thy van,/ My heels are fetter'd, but my fist is free." The
poet's final heroism, in Milton, is a spasm of self-destruc-
tion, glorious because it pulls down the temple of his en-
emies. Satan, organizing his chaos, imposing a discipline
despite the visible darkness, calling his minions to emu-
late his refusal to mourn, becomes the hero as poet, find-
ing what must suffice, while knowing that nothing can suf-
This is a heroism that is exactly on the border of
solipsism, neither within it, nor beyond it. Satan's later
decline in the poem, as arranged by the Idiot Questioner
in Milton, is that the hero retreats from this border into
solipsism, and so is degraded; ceases, during his soliloquy
on Mount Niphates, to be a poet and, by intoning the for-
mula: "Evil be thou my good," becomes a mere rebel, a
childish inverter of conventional moral categories, an-
other wearisome ancestor of student non-students, the per-
petual New Left. For the modern poet, in the gladness of
his sorrowing strength, stands always on the farther verge
of solipsism, having just emerged from it. His difficult bal-
ance, from Wordsworth to Stevens, is to maintain a stance
just there, where by his very presence he says: "What I see
and hear come not but from myself" and yet also: "I have
not but I am and as I am I am." The first, by itself, is per-
haps the fine defiance of an overt solipsism, leading back
to an equivalent of "I know no time when I was not as
Clinamen or Poetic Misprision 23
now." Yet the second is the modification that makes for
poetry instead of idiocy: "There are no objects outside of
me because I see into their life, which is one with my
own, and so 'I am that I am,' which is to say, 'I too will be
present wherever and whenever I choose to be present.' I
am so much in process, that all possible movement is in-
deed possible, and if at present I explore only my own
dens, at least I explore." Or, as Satan might have said: "In
doing and in suffering, I shall be happy, for even in suf-
fering I shall be strong."
It is sad to observe most modern critics observing Satan,
because they never do observe him. The catalog of unsee-
ing could hardly be more distinguished, from Eliot who
speaks of "Milton's curly haired Byronic hero" (one wants
to reply, looking from side to side: "Who?") to the aston-
ishing backsliding of Northrop Frye, who invokes, in
urbane ridicule, a Wagnerian context (one wants to la-
ment: "A true critic, and of God's party without knowing
it"). Fortunately we have had Empson, with his apt rally-
ing cry: "Back to Shelley!" Whereto I go.
Contemplating Milton's meanness towards Satan, to-
wards his rival poet and dark brother, Shelley spoke of the
"pernicious casuistry" set up in the mind of Milton's
reader, who would be tempted to weigh Satan's flaws
against God's malice towards him, and to excuse Satan be-
cause God had been malicious beyond all measure. Shel-
ley's point has been twisted by the C. S. Lewis or Angelic
School of Milton Criticism, who proceed to weigh up the
flaws and God's wrongs, and find Satan wanting in the bal-
ance. This pernicious casuistry, Shelley would have
agreed, would not be less pernicious if we were to find (as
I do) Milton's God wanting. It would still be casuistry,
and as discourse upon poetry it would still be moralizing,
which is to say, pernicious.
Even the strongest poets were at first weak, for they
24 The Anxiety of Influence
started as prospective Adams, not as retrospective Satans.
Blake names one state of being Adam, and calls it the
Limit of Contraction, and another state Satan, and calls it
the Limit of Opacity. Adam is given or natural man, be-
yond which our imaginations will not contract. Satan is
the thwarted or restrained desire of natural man, or rather
the shadow or Spectre of that desire. Beyond this spectral
state, we will not harden against vision, but the Spectre
squats in our repressiveness, and we are hardened enough,
as we are contracted enough. Enough, our spirits lament,
not to live our lives, enough to be frightened out of our
creative potential by the Covering Cherub, Blake's em-
blem (out of Milton, and Ezekiel, and Genesis) for that
portion of creativity in us that has gone over to constric-
tion and hardness. Blake precisely named this renegade
part of Man. Before the Fall (which for Blake meant be-
fore the Creation, the two events for him being one and
the same) the Covering Cherub was the pastoral genius
Tharmas, a unifying process making for undivided con-
sciousness; the innocence, pre-reflective, of a state without
subjects and objects, yet in no danger of solipsism, for it
lacked also a consciousness of self. Tharmas is a poet's (or
any man's) power of realization, even as the Covering
Cherub is the power that blocks realization.
No poet, not even one so single-minded as Milton or
Wordsworth, is a Tharmas, this late in history, and no
poet is a Covering Cherub, though Coleridge and Hop-
kins both allowed themselves, at last, to be dominated by
him, as perhaps Eliot did also. Poets this late in tradition
are both Adams and Satans. They begin as natural men,
affirming that they will contract no further, and they end
as thwarted desires, frustrated only that they cannot
harden apocalyptically. But, in between, the greatest of
them are very strong, and they progress through a natural
intensification that marks Adam in his brief prime and
Clinamen or Poetic Misprision 25
a heroic self-realization that marks Satan in his brief and
more-than-natural glory. The intensification and the self-
realization alike are accomplished only through language,
and no poet since Adam and Satan speaks a language free
of the one wrought by his precursors. Chomsky remarks
that when one speaks a language, one knows a great deal
that was never learned. The effort of criticism is to teach a
language, for what is never learned but comes as the gift
of a language is a poetry already written-an insight I de-
rive from Shelley's remark that every language is the relic
of an abandoned cyclic poem. I mean that criticism
teaches not a language of criticism (a formalist view still
held in common by archetypalists, structuralists, and
phenomenologists) but a.language in which poetry already
is written, the language of influence, of the dialectic that
governs the relations between poets as poets. The poet in
every reader does not experience the same disjunction
from what he reads that the critic in every reader neces-
sarily feels. What gives pleasure to the critic in a reader
may give anxiety to the poet in him, an anxiety we have
learned, as readers, to neglect, to our own loss and peril.
This anxiety, this mode of melancholy, is the anxiety of
influence, the dark and daemonic ground upon which we
now enter.
How do men become poets, or to adopt an older phras-
ing, how is the poetic character incarnated? When a po-
tential poet first discovers (or is discovered by) the dialec-
tic of influence, first discovers poetry as being both
external and internal to himself, he begins a process that
will end only when he has no more poetry within him,
long after he has the power (or desire) to discover it out-
side himself again. Though all such discovery is a self-
recognition, indeed a Second Birth, and ought, in the
pure good of theory, to be accomplished in a perfect so-
lipsism, it is an act never complete in itself. Poetic Influ-
26 The Anxiety of Influence
ence in the sense-amazing, agonizing, delighting-of other
poets, as felt in the depths of the all but perfect solipsist,
the potentially strong poet. For the poet is condemned to
learn his profoundest yearnings through an awareness of
other selves. The poem is within him, yet he experiences
the shame and splendor of being found by poems-great
poems-outside him. To lose freedom in this center is
never to forgive, and to learn the dread of threatened au-
tonomy forever.
"Every young man's heart," Malraux says, "is a grave-
yard in which are inscribed the names of a thousand dead
artists but whose only actual denizens are a few mighty,
often antagonistic, ghosts." "The poet," Malraux adds, "is
haunted by a voice with which words must be harmo-
nized." As his main concerns are visual and narrative,
Malraux arrives at the formula: "from pastiche to style,"
which is not adequate for poetic influence, where the
movement toward self-realization is closer to the more
drastic spirit of Kierkegaard's maxim: "He who is willing
to work gives birth to his own father." We remember how
for so many centuries, from the sons of Homer to the sons
of Ben Jonson, poetic influence had been described as a
filial relationship, and then we come to see that poetic in-
fluence, rather than sonship, is another product of the En-
lightenment, another aspect of the Cartesian dualism.
The word "influence" had received the sense of "having
a power over another" as early as the Scholastic Latin of
Aquinas, but not for centuries was it to lose its root mean-
ing of "inflow," and its prime meaning of an emanation or
force coming in upon mankind from the stars. As first
used, to be influenced meant to receive an ethereal fluid
flowing in upon one from the stars, a fluid that affected
one's character and destiny, and that altered all sublunary
things. A power-divine and moral-later simply a secret
power-exercised itself, in defiance of all that had seemed
Clinamen or Poetic Misprision 27
voluntary in one. In our sense-that of poetic influence
-the word is very late. In English it is not one of Dry-
den's critical terms, and is never used in our sense by
Pope. Johnson in 1755 defines influence as being either
astral or moral, saying of the latter that it is "Ascendant
power; power of directing or modifying"; but the in-
stances he cites are religious or personal, and not literary.
For Coleridge, two generations later, the word has sub-
stantially our meaning in the context of literature.
But the anxiety had long preceded the usage. Between
Ben Jonson and Samuel Johnson filial loyalty between
poets had given way to the labyrinthine affections of what
Freud's wit first termed the "family romance," and moral
power had become a legacy of melancholy. Ben Jonson
still sees influence as health. Of imitation, he says he
means: "to be able to convert the substance or riches of
another poet to his own use. To make choice of one excel-
lent man above the rest, and so to follow him till he grow
very he, or so like him as the copy may be mistaken for
the original." So Ben Jonson has no anxiety as to imita-
tion, for to him (refreshingly) art is hard work. But the
shadow fell, and with the post-Enlightenment passion for
Genius and the Sublime, there came anxiety too, for art
was beyond hard work. Edward Young, with his Lon-
ginian esteem for Genius, broods on the baneful virtues of
the poetic fathers and anticipates the Keats of the letters
and the Emerson of Self-Reliance when he laments, of the
great precursors: "They engross our attention, and so pre-
vent a due inspection of ourselves; they prejudice our
judgment in favor of their abilities, and so lessen the sense
of our own; and they intimidate us with this splendor of
their renown." And Dr. Samuel Johnson, a sturdier man
and with more classical loyalties: nevertheless created a
complex critical matrix in which the notions of indolence,
solitude, originality, imitation, and invention are most
28 The Anxiety of Influence
strangely mixed. Johnson barked: "The case of Tantalus,
in the region of poetick punishment, was somewhat to be
pitied, because the fruits that hung about him retired
from his hand; but what tenderness can be claimed by
those who though perhaps they suffer the pains of Tan-
talus will never lift their hands for their own relief?" We
wince at the Johnsonian bow-wow, and wince the more
because we know he means himself as well, for as a poet
he was another Tantalus, another victim of the Covering
Cherub. In this respect, only Shakespeare and Milton es-
caped a Johnsonian whipping; even Virgil was con-
demned as too much a mere imitator of Homer. For, with
Johnson, the greatest critic in the language, we have also
the first great diagnostician of the malady of poetic influ-
ence. Yet the diagnosis belongs to his age. Hume, who ad-
mired Waller, thought Waller was saved only because
Horace was so distant. Weare further on, and see that
Horace was not distant enough. Waller is dead. Horace
lives. "The burden of government," Johnson brooded, "is
increased upon princes by the virtues of their immediate
predecessors," and he added: "He that succeeds a cele-
brated writer, has the same difficulties to encounter." We
know the rancid humor of this too well, and any reader of
Advertisements For Myself may enjoy the frantic dances
of Norman Mailer as he strives to evade his own anxiety
that it is, after all, Hemingway all the way. Or, less enjoya-
bly, we can read through Roethke's The Far Field or Ber-
ryman's His Toy} His Dream} His Rest} and discover the
field alas is too near to those of Whitman, Eliot, Stevens,
Yeats, and the toy, dream, veritable rest are also the com-
forts of the same poets. Influence, for us, is the anxiety it
was to Johnson and Hume, but the pathos lengthens as
the dignity diminishes in this story.
Poetic Influence, as time has tarnished it, is part of the
larger phenomenon of intellectual revisionism. And rev i-
Clinamen or Poetic Misprision 29
sionism, whether in political theory, psychology, theology,
law, poetics, has changed its nature in our time. The
ancestor of revisionism is heresy, but heresy tended to
change received doctrine by an alteration of balances,
rather than by what could be called creative correction,
the more particular mark of modern revisionism. Heresy
resulted, generally, from a change in emphasis, while revi-
sionism follows received doctrine along to a certain point,
and then deviates, insisting that a wrong direction was
taken at just that point, and no other. Freud, contemplat-
ing his revisionists, murmured: "You have only to think
of the strong emotional factors that make it hard for many
people to fit themselves in with others or to subordinate
themselves," but Freud was too tactful to analyze just
those "strong emotional factors." Blake, happily free of
such tact, remains the most profound and original theorist
of revisionism to appear since the Enlightenment and an
inevitable aid in the development of a new theory of Po-
etic Influence. To be enslaved by any precursor's system,
Blake says, is to be inhibited from creativity by an obses-
sive reasoning and comparing, presumably of one's own
works to the precursor's. Poetic Influence is thus a disease
of self-consciousness; but Blake was not released from his
share in that anxiety. What plagued him, a litany of evils,
came to him most powerfully in his vision of the greatest
of his precursors:
... the Male-Females, the Dragon Forms,
Religion hid in War, a Dragon red & hidden Harlot.
All these are seen in Milton's Shadow, who is the Covering
We know, as Blake did, that Poetic Influence is gain
and loss, inseparably wound in the labyrinth of history.
What is the nature of the gain? Blake distinguished be-
30 The Anxiety of Influence
tween States and Individuals. Individuals passed through
States of Being, and remained Individuals, but States were
always in process, always shifting. And only States were
culpable, Individuals never. Poetic Influence is a passing
of Individuals or Particulars through States. Like all revi-
sionism, Poetic Influence is a gift of the spirit that comes
to us only through what could be called, dispassionately,
the perversity of the spirit, or what Blake more accurately
judged the perversity of States.
It does happen that one poet influences another, or
more precisely, that one poet's poems influence the poems
of the other, through a generosity of the spirit, even a
shared generosity. But our easy idealism is out of place
here. Where generosity is involved, the poets influenced
are minor or weaker; the more generosity, and the more
mutual it is, the poorer the poets involved. And here also,
the influencing moves by way of misapprehension, though
this tends to be indeliberate and almost unconscious. I ar-
rive at my argument's central principle, which is not more
true for its outrageousness, but merely true enough:
Poetic Influence-when it involves two strong} authen-
tic poets}-always proceeds by a misreading of the prior
poet} an act of creative correction that is actually and nec-
essarily a misinterpretation. The history offruitful poetic
influence} which is to say the main tradition of Western
poetry since the Renaissance} is a history of anxiety and
self-saving caricature} of distortion} of perverse} wilful re-
visionism without which modern poetry as such could not
My own Idiot Questioner, happily curled up in the lab-
yrinth of my own being, protests: "What is the use of such
a principle, whether the argument it informs be true or
not?" Is it useful to be told that poets are not common
readers, and particularly are not critics, in the true sense
Clinamen or Poetic Misprision 31
of critics, common readers raised to the highest power?
And what is Poetic Influence anyway? Can the study of it
really be anything more than the wearisome industry of
source-hunting, of allusion-counting, an industry that will
soon touch apocalypse anyway when it passes from schol-
ars to computers? Is there not the shibboleth bequeathed
us by Eliot, that the good poet steals, while the poor poet
betrays an influence, borrows a voice? And are there not
all the great Idealists of literary criticism, the deniers of
poetic influence, ranging from Emerson with his maxims:
"Insist on yourself: never imitate" and" Not possibly will
the soul deign to repeat itself" to the recent transfonna-
tion of Northrop Frye into the Arnold of our day, with
his insistence that the Myth of Concern prevents poets
from suffering the anxieties of obligation?
Against such idealism one cheerfully cites Lichtenberg's
grand remark: "Yes, I too like to admire great men, but
only those whose works I do not understand." Or again
from Lichtenberg, who is one of the sages of Poetic Influ-
ence: "To do just the opposite is also a form of imitation,
and the definition of imitation ought by rights to include
both." What Lichtenberg implies is that Poetic Influence
is itself an oxymoron, and he is right. But then, so is Ro-
mantic Love an oxymoron, and Romantic Love is the
closest analogue of Poetic Influence, another splendid
perversity of the spirit, though it moves precisely in the
opposite direction. The poet confronting his Great Orig-
inal must find the fault that is not there, and at the heart
of all but the highest imaginative virtue. The lover is be-
guiled to the heart of loss, but is found, as he finds, within
mutual illusion, the poem that is not there. "When two
people fall in love," says Kierkegaard, "and begin to feel
that they are made for one another, then it is time for
them to break off, for by going on they have everything
to lose and nothing to gain." When the ephebe, or figure
32 The Anxiety of Influence
of the youth as virile poet, is found by his Great Original,
then it is time to go on, for he has everything to gain, and
his precursor nothing to lose; if the fully written poets
are indeed beyond loss.
But there is the state called Satan, and in that hardness
poets must appropriate for themselves. For Satan is a pure
or absolute consciousness of self compelled to have admit-
ted its intimate alliance with opacity. The state of Satan is
therefore a constant consciousness of dualism, of being
trapped in the finite, not just in space (in the body) but
in clock-time as well. To be pure spirit, yet to know in
oneself the limit of opacity; to assert that one goes back
before the Creation-Fall, yet be forced to yield to number,
weight, and measure; this is the situation of the strong
poet, the capable imagination, when he confronts the uni-
verse of poetry, the words that were and will be, the terri-
ble splendor of cultural heritage. In our time, the situa-
tion becomes more desperate even than it was in the
Milton-haunted eighteenth century, or the Wordsworth-
haunted nineteenth, and our current and future poets
have only the consolation that no certain Titanic figure
has risen since Milton and Wordsworth, not even Yeats or
If one examines the dozen or so major poetic influenc-
ers before this century, one discovers quickly who among
them ranks as the great Inhibitor, the Sphinx who stran-
gles even strong imaginations in their cradles: Milton.
The motto to English poetry since Milton was stated by
Keats: "Life to him would be Death to me." This deathly
vitality in Milton is the state of Satan in him, and is
shown us not so much by the character of Satan in Para-
dise Lost as by Milton's editorializing relationship to his
own Satan, and by his relationship to all the stronger
poets of the eighteenth century and to most of those in
the nineteenth.
Clinamen or Poetic Misprision 33
Milton is the central problem in any theory and history
of poetic influence in English; perhaps more so even than
Wordsworth, who is closer to us as he was to Keats, and
who confronts us with everything that is most problematic
in modern poetry, which is to say in ourselves. What
unites this ruminative line-of which Milton is the ances-
tor; Wordsworth the great revisionist; Keats and Wallace
Stevens, among others, the dependent heirs-is an honest
acceptance of an actual dualism as opposed to the fierce
desire to overcome all dualisms, a desire that dominates
the visionary and prophetic line from the relative mild-
ness of Spenser's temperament down through the various
fiercenesses of Blake, Shelley, Browning, Whitman, and
This is the authentic voice of the ruminative line, the
poetry of loss, and the voice also of the strong poet accept-
ing his task, rallying what remains:
Farewell happy fields
Where joy for ever dwells: Hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang'd by Place or Time,
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n,
What matter where, if I be still the same . . . ?
These lines, to the C. S. Lewis or Angelic School, repre-
sent moral idiocy, and are to be met with laughter, if we
have remembered to start the day with our Good Morn-
ing's Hatred of Satan. If, however, we are not so morally
sophisticated, we are likely to be very much moved by
these lines. Not that Satan is not mistaken; of course he is.
There is terrible pathos in his "if I be still the same,"
since he is not the same, and never will be again. But he
knows it. He is adopting an heroic dualism, in this con-
34 The Anxiety of Influence
scious farewell to Joy, a dualism upon which almost all
post-Miltonic poetic influence in the language founds it-
To Milton, all fallen experience had its inevitable foun-
dation in loss, and paradise could be regained only by
One Greater Man, and not by any poet whatsoever. Yet
Milton's own Great Original, as he confessed to Dryden,
was Spenser, who allows his Colin a Poet's Paradise in
Book VI of The Faerie Queene. Milton-as both Johnson
and Hazlitt emphasize-was incapable of suffering the
anxiety of influence, unlike all of his descendants. John-
son insisted that, of all the borrowers from Homer, Mil-
ton was the least indebted, adding: ..He was naturally a
thinker for himself, confident of his own abilities, and dis-
dainful of help or hindrance: he did not refuse admission
to the thought or images of his predecessors, but he did
not seek them." Hazlitt, in a lecture heard by Keats-an
influence upon Keats's subsequent notion of Negative
Capability-remarked upon Milton's positive capability
for ingesting his precursors: ..In reading his works, we feel
ourselves under the influence of a mighty intellect, that
the nearer it approaches to others, becomes more distinct
from them." What then, we are compelled to inquire, did
Milton mean by nominating Spenser as his Great Original?
At least this: that in his Second Birth, Milton was re-born
into Spenser's romance world, and also that when he re-
placed what he came to regard as the unitary illusion of
Spenserian romance by an acceptance of an actual dualism
as the pain of being, he retained his sense of Spenser as
the sense of the Other, the dream of Otherness that all
poets must dream. In departing from the unitary aspi-
ration of his own youth Milton may be said to have fa-
thered the poetry that we call post-Enlightenment or Ro-
mantic, the poetry that takes as its obsessive theme the
power of the mind over the universe of death, or as Words-
Clinamen or Poetic Misprision 35
worth phrased it, to what extent the mind is lord and mas-
ter, outward sense the servant of her will.
No modern poet is unitary, whatever his stated beliefs.
Modern poets are necessarily miserable dualists, because
this misery, this poverty is the starting point of their art
-Stevens speaks appropriately of the "profound poetry of
the poor and of the dead." Poetry mayor may not work
out its own salvation in a man, but it comes only to those
in dire imaginative need of it, though it may come then as
terror. And this need is learned first through the young
poet's or ephebe's experience of another poet, of the
Other whose baleful greatness is enhanced by the ephebe's
seeing him as a burning brightness against a framing dark-
ness, rather as Blake's Bard of Experience sees the Tyger,
or Job the Leviathan and Behemoth, or Ahab the White
Whale or Ezekiel the Covering Cherub, for all these are
visions of the Creation gone malevolent and entrapping, of
a splendor menacing the Promethean Quester every
ephebe is about to become.
For Collins, for Cowper, for many a Bard of Sensibility,
Milton was the Tyger, the Covering Cherub blocking a
new voice from entering the Poet's Paradise. The emblem
of this discussion is the Covering Cherub. In Genesis he is
God's Angel; in Ezekiel he is the Prince of Tyre; in Blake
he is fallen Tharmas, and the Spectre of Milton; in Yeats
he is the Spectre of Blake. In this discussion he is a poor
demon of many names (as many names as there are strong
poets) but I summon him first namelessly, as a final name
is not yet devised by men for the anxiety that blocks their
creativeness. He is that something that makes men victims
and not poets, a demon of discursiveness and shady con-
tinuities, a pseudo-exegete who makes writings into Scrip-
tures. He cannot strangle the imagination, for nothing can
do that, and he in any case is too weak to strangle any-
thing. The Covering Cherub may masquerade as the
36 The Anxiety of Influence
Sphinx (as the Spectre of Milton masqueraded, in the
nightmares of Sensibility) but the Sphinx (whose works
are mighty) must be a female (or at least a female male).
The Cherub is male (or at least a male female). The
Sphinx riddles and strangles and is self-shattered at last,
but the Cherub only covers, he only appears to block the
way, he cannot do more than conceal. But the Sphinx is
in the way, and must be dislodged. The unriddler is in
every strong poet when he sets out upon his quest. It is
the high irony of poetic vocation that the strong poets
can accomplish the greater yet fail the lesser task. They
push aside the Sphinx (else they could not be poets, not
for more than one volume), but they cannot uncover the
Cherub. More ordinary men (and sometimes weaker poets)
can uncover enough of the Cherub so as to live (if not
quite to choose Perfection of the Life), but approach the
Sphinx only at the risk of death by throttling.
For the Sphinx is natural, but the Cherub is closer to
the human. The Sphinx is sexual anxiety, but the Cherub
is creative anxiety. The Sphinx is met upon the road back
to origins, but the Cherub upon the road forward to pos-
sibility, if not to fulfillment. Good poets are powerful
striders upon the way back-hence their profound joy as
elegists-but only a few have opened themselves to vision.
Uncovering the Cherub does not require power so much
as it does persistence, remorselessness, constant wakeful-
ness; for the blocking agent who obstructs creativity does
not lapse into "stony sleep" as readily as the Sphinx does.
Emerson thought that the poet unriddled the Sphinx by
perceiving an identity in nature, or else yielded to the
Sphinx, if he was merely bombarded by diverse particu-
lars he could never hope to integrate. The Sphinx, as
Emerson saw, is nature and the riddle of our emergence
from nature, which is to say that the Sphinx is what psy-
choanalysts have called the Primal Scene. But what is the
Clinamen or Poetic Misprision 37
Primal Scene, for a poet as poet? It is his Poetic Father's
coitus with the Muse. There he was begotten? No-there
they failed to beget him. He must be self-begotten, he
must engender himself upon the Muse his mother. But the
Muse is as pernicious as Sphinx or Covering Cherub, and
may identify herself with either, though more usually
with the Sphinx. The strong poet fails to beget himself-
he must wait for his Son, who will define him even as he
has defined his own Poetic Father. To beget here means
to usurp, and is the dialectical labor of the Cherub. Enter-
ing here into the center of our sorrow, we must look
clearly at him.
What does the Cherub cover, in Genesis? in Ezekiel? in
Blake? Genesis 3:24-"50 He drove out the man; and He
placed at the east of the Garden of Eden the cherubim,
and the flaming sword which turned every which way, to
keep the way to the tree of life." The rabbis took the
cherubim here to symbolize the terror of God's presence;
to Rashi they were "Angels of destruction." Ezekiel
28: 14-16 gives us an even fiercer text:
Thou wast the far-covering [mimshach, "far-extending,"
according to Rashi] cherub; and I set thee, so that thou
wast upon the holy mountain of God; thou hast walked up
and down in the midst of the stones of the fire. Thou wast
perfect in thy ways from the day that thou wast created, till
unrighteousness was found in thee. By the multitude of thy
traffic they filled the midst of thee with violence, and thou
hast sinned; therefore have I cast thee as profane out of the
mountain of God; and I will destroy you, 0 Covering
Cherub, in the midst of the stones of the fire.
Here God denounces the Prince of Tyre, who is a cherub
because the cherubim in the tabernacle and in Solomon's
Temple spread their wings over the ark, and so protected
it, even as the Prince of Tyre once protected Eden, the
38 The Anxiety of Influence
garden of God. Blake is a still fiercer prophet against the
Covering Cherub. To Blake, Voltaire and Rousseau were
Vala's Covering Cherubim, Vala being the illusory beauty
of the natural world, and the prophets of naturalistic en-
lightenment being her servitors. In Blake's "brief epic,"
called Milton, the Covering Cherub stands between the
achieved Man who is at once Milton, Blake, and Los, and
the emanation or beloved. In Blake's Jerusalem the
Cherub stands as blocking agent between Blake-Los and
Jesus. The answer to what the Cherub covers is therefore:
in Blake, everything that nature itself covers; in Ezekiel,
the richness of the earth, but by the Blakean paradox of
appearing to be those riches; in Genesis, the Eastern Gate,
the Way to the Tree of Life.
The Covering Cherub separates, then? No-he has no
power to do so. Poetic Influence is not a separation but a
victimization-it is a destruction of desire. The emblem
of Poetic Influence is the Covering Cherub because the
Cherub symbolizes what came to be the Cartesian category
of extensiveness; hence it is described as mimshach-"far-
extending." It is not accidental that Descartes and his fel-
lows and disciples are the ultimate enemies of poetic vision
in the Romantic tradition, for the Cartesian extensiveness
is the root category of modern (as opposed to Pauline)
dualism, of the dumbfoundering abyss between ourselves
and the object. Descartes saw objects as localized space;
the irony of Romantic vision is that it rebelled against
Descartes, but except in Blake did not go far enough-
Wordsworth and Freud alike remain Cartesian dualists,
for whom the present is a precipitated past, and nature a
continuum of localized spaces. These Cartesian reductions
of time and space brought upon us the further blight of
the negative aspect of poetic influence, of influenza in the
realm of literature, as the influx of an epidemic of anxi-
Clinamen or Poetic Misprision 39
ety. Instead of the radiation of an aetherial fluid we re-
ceived the poetic flowing in of an occult power exercised
by humans, rather than by stars upon humans; "occult"
because invisible and insensible. Cut mind as intensive-
ness off from the outer world as extensiveness, and mind
will learn-as never before-its own solitude. The soli-
tary brooder moves to deny his sonship and his brother-
hood, even as Blake's Urizen, a satire upon Cartesian Ge-
nius, is the archetype of the strong poet afflicted by the
anxiety of influence. If there are two, disjunctive worlds
-one a huge mathematical machine extended in space,
and the other made up of unextended, thinking spirits
-then we will start locating our anxieties back along that
continuum extended into the past, and our vision of the
Other will become magnified when the Other is placed in
the past.
The Covering Cherub then is a demon of continuity;
his baleful charm imprisons the present in the past, and
reduces a world of differences into a grayness of uniform-
ity. The identity of past and present is at one with the es-
sential identity of all objects. This is Milton's "universe of
death" and with it poetry cannot live, for poetry must
leap, it must locate itself in a discontinuous universe, and
it must make that universe (as Blake did) if it cannot find
one. Discontinuity is freedom. Prophets and advanced an-
alysts alike proclaim discontinuity; here Shelley and the
phenomenologists are in agreement: "To predict, to really
foretell, is still a gift of those who own the future in the
full unrestricted sense of the word, the sense of what is
coming toward us, and not of what is the result of the
past." That is J. H. Van den Berg in his Metabletica. In
Shelley's A Defence of Poetry, which Yeats rightly con-
sidered the most profound discourse upon poetry in the
language, the prophetic voice trumpets the same freedom:
40 The Anxiety of Influence
"Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspira-
tion; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity
casts upon the present."
"He proves God by exhaustion" is Samuel Beckett's
own note on "So I'm not my son" in his poem Whoroscope,
a dramatic monologue spoken by Descartes. The triumph
of Descartes came in a literal vision, not necessarily
friendly to imaginations other than his own. The protests
against Cartesian reductiveness never cease, in constant
involuntary tribute to him. Beckett's fine handful of
poems in English are too subtle to protest overtly, but
they are strong prayers for discontinuity.
Yet there is no overt Cartesian prejudice against poets,
no analogue to the Platonic polemic against their author-
ity. Descartes, in his Private Thoughts, could even write:
"It might seem strange that opinions of weight are found
in the works of poets rather than philosophers. The rea-
son is that poets wrote through enthusiasm and imagina-
tion; there are in us seeds of knowledge, as of fire in a
flint; philosophers extract them by way of reason, but
poets strike them out by imagination, and then they shine
more bright." The Cartesian myth or abyss of conscious-
ness nevertheless took the fire from the flint, and trapped
poets in what Blake grimly called a "cloven fiction," with
the alternatives, both anti-poetic, of Idealism and Materi-
alism. Philosophy, in cleansing itself, has rinsed away this
great dualism, but the whole of the giant line from Mil-
ton down to Yeats and Stevens had only their own tradi-
tion, Poetic Influence, to tell them that "both Idealism
and Materialism are answers to an improper question."
Yeats and Stevens, as much as Descartes (or Wordsworth),
labored to see with the mind and not with the bodily eye
alone; Blake, the one genuine anti-Cartesian, found such
labor too a cloven fiction, and satirized the Cartesian Diop-
trics by opposing his Vortex to that of the Mechanist.
Clinamen or Poetic Misprision 41
That the Mechanism had its desperate nobility we grant
now; Descartes wished to save the phenomena by his myth
of extensiveness. A body took definite shape, moved
within a fixed area, and was divided within that area; and
thus maintained an integrity in its strictly limited becom-
ing. This established the world or manifold of sensation
given to the poets, and from it the Wordsworthian vision
could begin, rising from this confinement to the enforced
ecstasy of the further reduction Wordsworth chose to call
Imagination. The manifold of sensation in Tintern
Abbey initially is further isolated, and then dissolved into
a fluid continuum, with the edges of things, the fixities
and definites, fading out into a "higher" apprehension.
Blake's protest against Wordsworthianism, the more effec-
tive for its praise of Wordsworth's poetry, is founded on
his horror of this enforced illusion, this ecstasy that is a re-
duction. In the Cartesian theory of vortices all motion
had to be circular (there being no vacuum for matter to
move through) and all matter had to be capable of further
reduction (there were thus no atoms). These, to Blake,
were the circlings of the Mills of Satan, grinding on vainly
in their impossible task of reducing the Minute Particu-
lars, the Atoms of Vision that will not further divide. In
the Blakean theory of vortices, circular motion is a self-
contradiction; when the poet stands at the apex of his own
Vortex the Cartesian-Newtonian circles resolve into the
flat plain of Vision, and the Particulars stand forth, each
as itself, and not another thing. For Blake does not wish
to save the phenomena, any more than he joins the long
program of those who seek "to save the appearances," in
the sense that Owen Barfield (taking the phrase from Mil-
ton) has traced. Blake is the theorist of the saving or revi-
sionary aspect of Poetic Influence, of the impulse that at-
tempts to cast out the Covering Cherub into the midst of
the stones of the fire.
42 The Anxiety of Influence
French visionaries, because so close to the spell of Des-
cartes, to the Cartesian Siren, have worked in a different
spirit, in the high and serious humor, the apocalyptic
irony, that culminates in the work of Jarry and his disci-
ples. The study of Poetic Influence is necessarily a branch
of 'Pataphysics, and gladly confesses its indebtedness to
", . . the Science, of Imaginary Solutions." As Blake's
Los, under the influence of Urizen, the master Cartesian,
comes crashing down in our Creation-Fall, he swerves, and
this parody of the Lucretian clinamen, this change from
destiny to slight caprice, is, with final irony, all the indi-
viduality of Urizenic creation, of Cartesian vision as such.
The clinamen or swerve, which is the Urizenic equivalent
of the hapless errors of re-creation made by the Platonic
demiurge, is necessarily the central working concept of
the theory of Poetic Influence, for what divides each poet
from his Poetic Father (and so saves, by division) is an in-
stance of creative revisionism. We must understand that
the clinamen stems always from a 'Pataphysical sense of
the arbitrary. The poet so stations his precursor, so
swerves his context, that the visionary objects, with their
higher intensity, fade into the continuum. The poet has,
in regard to the precursor's heterocosm, a shuddering
sense of the arbitrary-of the equality, or equal haphaz-
ardness.of all objects. This sense is not reductive, for it is
the continuum, the stationing context, that is reseen, and
shaped into the visionary; it is brought up to the intensity
of the crucial objects, which then "fade" into it, in a man-
ner opposite to the Wordsworthian "fade into the light of
common day." 'Pataphysics proves to be truly accurate; in
the world of poets all regularities are indeed "regular ex-
ceptions"; the recurrence of vision is itself a law govern-
ing exceptions. If every act of vision determines a particu-
lar law, then the basis for the splendidly horrible paradox
of Poetic Influence is securely founded; the new poet
Clinamen or Poetic Misprision 43
himself determines the precursor's particular law. If a cre-
ative interpretation is thus necessarily a misinterpretation,
we must accept this apparent absurdity. It is absurdity of
the highest mode, the apocalyptic absurdity of jarry, or of
Blake's entire enterprise.
Let us make then the dialectical leap: most so-called
"accurate" interpretations of poetry are worse than mis-
takes; perhaps there are only more or less creative or inter-
esting mis-readings, for is not every reading necessarily a
clinamen? Should we not therefore, in this spirit, attempt
to renew the study of poetry by returning yet again to fun-
damentals? No poem has sources, and no poem merely al-
ludes to another. Poems are written by men, and not by
anonymous Splendors. The stronger the man, the larger
his resentments, and the more brazen his clinamen. But at
what price, as readers, are we to forfeit our own clinamen?
I propose, not another new poetics, but a wholly differ-
ent practical criticism. Let us give up the failed enterprise
of seeking to "understand" any single poem as an entity in
itself. Let us pursue instead the quest of learning to read
any poem as its poet's deliberate misinterpretation, as a
poet, of a precursor poem or of poetry in general. Know
each poem by its clinamen and you will "know" that
poem in a way that will not purchase knowledge by the
loss of the poem's power. I say this in the spirit of Pater's
rejection of Coleridge's famous organic analogue. Pater
felt that Coleridge (however involuntarily) slighted the
poet's pain and suffering in achieving his poem, sorrows
at least partly dependent upon the anxiety of influence,
and sorrows not separate from the poem's meaning.
Borges, commenting on Pascal's sublime and terrifying
sense of his Fearful Sphere, contrasts Pascal to Bruno, who
in 1584 could still react with exultation to the Coperni-
can Revolution. In seventy years, senescence sets in-
Donne, Milton, Glanvill see decay where Bruno saw only
44 The Anxiety of Influence
joy in the advance of thought. As Borges sums it, "In that
dispirited century, the absolute space which had inspired
the hexameters of Lucretius, the absolute space which had
meant liberation to Bruno, became a labyrinth and an
abyss for Pascal." Borges does not lament the change, for
Pascal too achieves the Sublime. But strong poets, unlike
Pascal, do not exist to accept griefs; they cannot rest with
purchasing the Sublime at so high a price. Like Lucretius
himself, they opt for clinamen as freedom. Here is Lucre-
When the atoms are travelling straight down through
empty space by their own weight, at quite indeterminate
times and places they swerve ever so little from their
course, just so much that you can call it a change of direction.
If it were not for this swerve, everything would fall down-
wards like rain-drops through the abyss of space. No col-
lision would take place and no impact of atom on atom
would be created. Thus nature would never have created any-
But the fact that the mind itself has no internal necessity
to determine its every act and compel it to suffer in helpless
passivity-this is due to the slight swerve of the atoms at no
determinate time or place.
Contemplating the clinamen of Lucretius, we can see
the final irony of Poetic Influence, and come full circle to
end where we began. This clinamen between the strong
poet and the Poetic Father is made by the whole being of
the later poet, and the true history of modern poetry
would be the accurate recording of these revisionary
swerves. To the pure 'Pataphysician, the swerve is marvel-
ously gratuitous; Jarry, after all, was capable of consider-
ing the Passion as an uphill bicycle race. The student of
Poetic Influence is compelled to be an impure 'Pataphysi-
cian; he must understand that the clinamen always must
Clinamen or Poetic Misprision 45
be considered as though it were simultaneously inten-
tional and involuntary, the Spiritual FOI.:JIl of each poet
and the gratuitous gesture each poet makes as his falling
body hits the floor of the abyss. Poetic Influence is the
passing of Individuals through States, in Blake's language,
but the passing is done ill when it is not a swerving. The
strong poet indeed says: ..I seem to have stopped falling;
now I am [allen, consequently, I lie here in Hell," but he
is thinking, as he says this, ..As I fell, I swerved, conse-
quently I lie here in a Hell improved by my own mak-
In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts
-they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.
I first read Nietzsche's essay Of the Advantage and Disad-
vantage of History for Life in October 1951, when I was a
graduate student at Yale. The essay was chastening then,
and hurts more when I read it now:
The most astonishing works may be created; the swarm of
historical neuters will always be in their place, ready to con-
sider the author through their long telescopes. The echo is
heard at once, but always in the form of "criticism," though
the critic never dreamed of the work's possibility a moment
before. It never comes to have an influence, but only a criti-
cism; and the criticism itself has no influence, but only
breeds another criticism. And so we come to consider the
fact of many critics as a mark of failure. Actually everything
remains in the old condition, even in the presence of such
"influence": men talk a little while of a new thing, and then
of some other new thing, and in the meantime they do what
they have always done. The historical training of our critics
prevents their having an influence in the true sense-an in-
fluence on life and action.
50 The Anxiety of Influence
It never needs a Nietzsche to scorn crrncisrn, and the
scorn in this passage did not trouble me when first I read
it, nor does it trouble me now. But its implicit definition
of critical "influence" must be a burden for critics always.
Nietzsche, like Emerson, is one of the great deniers of anx-
iety-as-influence, just as Johnson and Coleridge are among
its great affirrners, and as W. J. Bate (following Johnson
and Coleridge) is its most considerable recent scholar. Yet
I find my own understanding of the anxiety of influence
owes more to Nietzsche and Emerson, who apparently did
not feel it, than to Johnson, Coleridge, and their admira-
ble scholar, Bate. Nietzsche, as he always insisted, was the
heir of Goethe in his strangely optimistic refusal to regard
the poetical past as primarily an obstacle to fresh creation.
Goethe, like Milton, absorbed precursors with a gusto evi-
dently precluding anxiety. Nietzsche owed as much to
Goethe and to Schopenhauer as Emerson did to Words-
worth and Coleridge, but Nietzsche, like Emerson, did
not feel the chill of being darkened by a precursor's
shadow. "Influence," to Nietzsche, meant vitalization. But
influence, and more precisely poetic influence, has been
more of a blight than a blessing, from the Enlightenment
until this moment. Where it has vitalized, it has operated
as misprision, as deliberate, even perverse revisionism.
Nietzsche, in his Twilight of the Idols, states his con-
ception of genius:
Great men, like great ages, are explosives in which a tre-
mendous force is stored up; their precondition is always, his-
torically and physiologically, that for a long time much has
been gathered, stored up, saved up, and conserved for them
-that there has been no explosion for a long time. Once
the tension in the mass has become too great, then the most
accidental stimulus suffices to summon into the world the
"genius," the "deed," the great destiny. What does the envi-
ronment matter then, or the age, or the "spirit of the age,"
or "public opinion."
Tessera or Completion and Antithesis 51
The genius is strong, his age is weak. And his strength
exhausts, not himself, but those who come in his wake. He
floods them, and in return, Nietzsche insists, they misun-
derstand their benefactor (though from Nietzsche's de-
scription I am tempted to say, not their benefactor but
their calamity).
Goethe, who may be termed Nietzsche's grandfather
even as Schopenhauer was his father, remarks in his
Theory of Color that "even perfect models have a disturb-
ing effect in that they lead us to skip necessary stages in
our Bildung, with the result, for the most part, that we
are carried wide of the mark into limitless error." Yet else-
where Goethe states the conviction that models are only
mirrors for the self anyway: "To be loved for what one is,
is the greatest exception. The great majority love in an-
other only what they lend him, their own selves, their ver-
sion of him." We need to remember that Goethe believed
in what he called, with charming irony, recurrent pu-
berty, or as he blandly said: "The individual has to be
ruined again." How often? we sometimes want to ask,
troubled also by the Goethean insistence upon being
influenced by every possible engulfment: "Everything
great molds us from the moment we become aware of it."
This formula is terrible in its consequences for most poets
(and for most men). But Goethe, in his autobiography,
was capable of a passage like the following, which only
Milton among the post-Enlightenment English, and only
Emerson among Americans, might have been tempted to
endorse. Only a poet who believed himself literally inca-
pable of creative anxiety could say this:
To be sure, it is a tedious and at times melancholy busi-
ness, this overconcentration on ourselves and what harms
and helps us. But considering the ominous idiosyncrasy of
human nature on the one hand and the infinite diversity of
modes of life and enjoyments on the other, it is a sheer mir-
52 The Anxiety of Influence
acle that the human race has not long since wrought its own
destruction. It must be that human nature is endowed with
a peculiar tenacity and versatility enabling it to overcome
everything that it contacts or takes into itself, or, if the
thing defies assimilation, at least to render it innocuous.
This is truer of Goethean than of human nature.
"Every talent must unfold itself in fighting," Nietzsche re-
marks, and so his vision of Goethe is of a fighter for Total-
ity, against even the formulations of Kant. To Nietzsche
though, Goethe is at last another overcoming of the
merely human: "he disciplined himself to wholeness, he
created himself." What are we to make of such an asser-
tion? First, that it is soundly based on Goethe's own ap-
palling self-confidence. Is he not recorded as having said:
"Do not all the achievements of a poet's predecessors and
contemporaries rightfully belong to him? Why should he
shrink from picking flowers where he finds them? Only by
making the riches of the others our own do we bring any-
thing great into being." Or, still more forcefully, to Ecker-
mann he said: "There is all this talk about originality, but
what does it amount to? As soon as we are born the world
begins to influence us, and this goes on till we die. And
anyway, what can we in fact call our own except the en-
ergy, the force, the will!" Except not less than everything,
for a poet, I am compelled to murmur as I read this, for
what does the anxiety of influence concern but the energy,
the force, the will? Are they one's own, or emanations
from the other, from the precursor? Thomas Mann, a
great sufferer from the anxiety of influence, and one of
the great theorists of that anxiety, suffered more acutely
for Goethe's not having suffered at all, as Mann realized.
Questing for some sign of such anxiety in Goethe, he
came up with a single question from the Westostlicher
Diwan: "Does a man live when others also live?" The
Tessera or Completion and Antithesis 53
question troubled Mann far more than it did Goethe.
The talkative musical promoter in Dr. Faustus, Herr Saul
Fitelberg, utters a central obsession of the novel when he
observes to Leverkiihn: "You insist on the incompara-
bleness of the personal case. You pay tribute to an arro-
gant personal uniqueness-maybe you have to do that.
'Does one live when others live?' " In his book on the gen-
esis of Dr. Faustus, Mann admits to his anxiety on receiv-
ing the Glasperlenspiel of Hesse while at work composing
his intended late masterpiece. In his diary, he wrote: "To
be reminded that one is not alone in the world-always
unpleasant," and then he added: "It is another version of
Goethe's question: 'Do we then live if others live?'" A
reader may smile at the vanity of greatness and perhaps
murmur: "We charmers do not love one another," but the
matter is, alas, profound, as Mann well knew. In his pow-
erful essay on Freud and the Future, Mann comes very
close to Nietzsche's dark essay on the right use of history
(which Mann later re-read for use in Faustus). "The ego
of antiquity and its consciousness of itself," Mann says,
"were different from our own, less exclusive, less sharply
defined." Life could be "imitation," in the sense of mythi-
cal identification, and could find "self-awareness, sanction,
consecration" in such renewal of an earlier identity. Fol-
lowing (as he thought) Freud, while invoking the exem-
plary life of Goethe, and hinting at his own pattern of the
imitatio Goethe, Mann gives us a twentieth-century
version of Nietzsche's overcoming of the anxiety of influ-
ence. I quote all of this passage in Mann's essay, as it
seems to me unique in our century's attitudes towards the
sorrows of influence:
Infantilism-in other words, regression to childhood-
what a role this genuinely psychoanalytic element plays in
all our lives! What a large share it has in shaping the life of
54 The Anxiety of Influence
a human being; operating, indeed, in just the way I have
described: as mythical identification, as survival, as a tread-
ing in footprints already made! The bond with the father,
the imitation of the father, the game of being the father,
and the transference to father-substitute pictures of a higher
and more developed type-how these infantile traits work
upon the life of the individual to mark and shape it! I use
the word "shape," for to me in all seriousness the happiest,
most pleasurable element of what we call education (Bil-
dung), the shaping of the human being, is just this powerful
influence of admiration and love, this childish identification
with a father-image elected out of profound affinity. The
artist in particular, a passionately childlike and play-pos-
sessed being, can tell us of the mysterious yet after all ob-
vious effect of such infantile imitation upon his own life, his
productive conduct of a career which after all is often noth-
ing but a reanimation of the hero under very different
temporal and personal conditions and with very different,
shall we say childish means. The imitatio Goethe, with its
Werther and Wilhelm Meister stages, its old-age period of
Faust and Diwan, can still shape and mythically mould the
life of an artist-rising out of his unconscious, yet playing
over-as is the artist way-into a smiling, childlike, and
profound awareness.
Everything of the relation between ephebe and precur-
sor that matters is in this passage, with the exception of
what matters most-the inescapable melancholy, the anxi-
ety that makes misprision inevitable. Mann's swerve away
from Goethe is the profoundly ironic denial that any
swerve is necessary. His misinterpretation of Goethe is to
read precisely his own parodistic genius, his own kind of
loving irony, into his precursor. In his great effort at por-
traying Bildung, his Joseph-Saga, he gives us the memora-
ble figure of Tamar, who loves Judah for the sake of an
idea, and murders his sons with her loins in her quest
after that idea... It was," Mann writes, "a new basis for
Tessera or Completion and Antithesis 55
love, for the first time in existence: love which comes not
from the flesh but from the idea, so that one might well
call it daemonic." Tamar comes late in the story, but is
very sure of the central place in the story that she will
compel the story to make for her. She stands, as Mann per-
haps only partly realized (great ironist though he was) in
some sense for Mann himself, and for any artist who feels
strongly the injustice of time, at having denied him all
priority. Mann's Tamar knows instinctively that the
meaning of one copulation is only another copulation,
even as Mann knows that one cannot write a novel with-
out remembering another novel. "Forgetfulness," Nietzsche
had insisted, "is a property of all action," and he went on
to quote Goethe's phrase that the man of action is
without conscience. So, Nietzsche could add, the man of
action, the true poet, "is also without knowledge: he for-
gets most things in order to do one, he is unjust to what
is behind him, and only recognizes one law-the law of
that which is to be." Nothing-I must insist-could be
more nobly and self-deceptively false than Nietzsche's
insistence, the insistence of a poet who is desperately
afraid of irony. This irony emerges in a pungent and ter-
rible passage in the essay on history, where Nietzsche
most powerfully protests the Hegelian philosophy of his-
The belief that one is a late-comer in the world is, any-
how, harmful and degrading; but it must appear frightful
and devastating when it raises our late-comer to godhead,
by a neat turn of the wheel, as the true meaning and object
of all past creation, and his conscious misery is set up as the
perfection of the world's history.
Never mind that this irony is directed against Hegel; its
true object is the anxiety of influence within Nietzsche
himself. "I am convinced," Lichtenberg wisely tells us,
56 The Anxiety of Influence
"that a person doesn't only love himself in others, he also
hates himself in others." The great deniers of influence-
Goethe, Nietzsche, Mann in Germany; Emerson and Tho-
reau in America; Blake and Lawrence in England; Pascal
and Rousseau and Hugo in France-these central men
are enormous fields of the anxiety of influence, as much so
as its great affirmers, from Samuel Johnson through Cole-
ridge and Ruskin in England, and the strong poets of the
last several generations in all four countries.
Montaigne asks us to search within ourselves, to learn
there "that our private wishes are for the most part born
and nourished at the expense of others." Montaigne more
even than Johnson is the great realist of the anxiety of in-
fluence, at least until Freud. Montaigne tells us (following
Aristotle) that Homer was both the first and last of poets.
Sometimes in reading Pascal, one feels that he feared
Montaigne to have been the first and last of true moral-
ists. Pascal huffed: "It is not in Montaigne, but in myself,
that I find all that I see in him," an assertion that be-
comes funny when we consult a good edition of Pascal,
and study the immense lists of "parallel passages" that
demonstrate an indebtedness so pervasive as to be a scan-
dal. Pascal attempting to refute Montaigne while wearing
his precursor's coat is rather like Matthew Arnold sneer-
ing at Keats while writing The Scholar Gipsy and Thyrsis
in a diction, tone, and sensuous rhythm wholly (and un-
consciously) stolen from the Great Odes.
Kierkegaard, in Fear and Trembling, announces, with
magnificent but absurdly apocalyptic confidence, that
he who is willing to work gives birth to his own father."
I find truer to mere fact the aphoristic admission of
Nietzsche: "When one hasn't had a good father, it is nec-
essary to invent one." I am afraid that the anxiety of influ-
ence, from which we all suffer, whether we are poets or
not, has to be located first in its origins, in the fateful rna-
Tessera or Completion and Antithesis 57
rasses of what Freud, with grandly desperate wit, called
"the family romance." But, before entering on that bale-
fully enchanted ground, I pause at "anxiety" itself, for
some needful recognitions.
Freud, in defining anxiety, speaks of "angst vor etwas."
Anxiety before something is clearly a mode of expecta-
tion, like desire. We can say that anxiety and desire are
the antinomies of the ephebe or beginning poet. The anx-
iety of influence is an anxiety in expectation of being
flooded. Lacan insists that desire is only a metonymy, and
it may be that desire's contrary, the anxiety of expecta-
tion, is only a metonymy also. The ephebe who fears his
precursors as he might fear a flood is taking a vital part
for a whole, the whole being everything that constitutes
his creative anxiety, the spectral blocking agent in every
poet. Yet this metonymy is hardly to be avoided; every
good reader properly desires to drown, but if the poet
drowns, he will become only a reader.
We live increasingly in a time where soft-headed de-
scriptions of anxiety are marketable, and cheerfully con-
sumed. Only one analysis of anxiety in this century adds
anything of value, in my judgment, to the legacy of the
classical moralists and Romantic speculators and neces-
sarily that contribution is Freud's. First, he reminds us,
anxiety is something felt, but it is a state of unpleasure
different from sorrow, grief, and mere mental tension.
Anxiety, he says, is unpleasure accompanied by efferent or
discharge phenomena among definite pathways. These dis-
charge phenomena relieve the "increase of excitation"
that underlies anxiety. The primal increase of excitation
may be the birth trauma, itself a response to our first situ-
ation of danger. Freud's use of "danger" reminds us of our
universal fear of domination, of our being trapped by na-
ture in our body as a dungeon, in certain situations of
stress. Though Freud rejected Rank's account of the birth
58 The Anxiety of Influence
trauma as being biologically unfounded, he remained
troubled by what he called "a certain predisposition to
anxiety on the part of the infant." Separation from the
mother, analogous to later castration anxiety, brings on
"an increase of tension arising from nongratification of
needs," the "needs" here being vital to the economy of
self-preservation. Separation anxiety is thus an anxiety of
exclusion, and rapidly joins itself to death anxiety, or the
ego's fear of superego. This brings Freud to the border of
his definition of compulsion neuroses, which are due to
dread of the superego, and encourages us to explore the
compulsive analogue of the melancholy of poets, or the
anxiety of influence.
When a poet experiences incarnation qua poet, he ex-
periences anxiety necessarily towards any danger that
might end him as a poet. The anxiety of influence is so
terrible because it is both a kind of separation anxiety and
the beginning of a compulsion neurosis, or fear of a death
that is a personified superego. Poems, we can speculate an-
alogically, may be viewed (humorously) as motor dis-
charges in response to the excitation increase of influence
anxiety. Poems, as criticism always has assured us, must
give pleasure. But-despite the insistence of whole tradi-
tions of poetry and of Romanticism in particular-poems
are not given by pleasure, but by the unpleasure of a dan-
gerous situation, the situation of anxiety of which the
grief of influence forms so large a part.
What justifies this radical analogue between human and
poetic birth, between biological and creative anxiety? To
give justification we need to tread on shadowy and dae-
monic ground, in the sorrow of origins, where art rises
from shamanistic ecstasy and the squalor of our timeless
human fear of mortality. Because my interests are those of
the practical critic, seeking a newer and starker way of
reading poems, I find this return to origins inescapable,
Tessera or Completion and Antithesis 59
though distasteful. What both holds rival poems together
and yet keeps them apart is an antithetical relation that
rises, in the first place, from the primordial element in po-
etry; and that element, sorrowfully, is divination, or the
desperation of seeking to foretell dangers to the self,
whether from nature, the gods, from others, or indeed
from the very self. And-I must add-for the poet in a
poet-these dangers come also from other poems.
There are many theories of poetic origins. Of these, I
am most convinced yet also most repelled by Vice's, but
the repulsion is due to my own addiction to a Romantic
and prophetic humanism, and so I must set it aside. Yet
Emerson, the great American fountainhead of a Roman-
tic, prophetic humanism, is curiously Viconian also in his
theorizings on poetic origins, which I accept as an encour-
agement. For Vico, as Auerbach observed, there is no
knowledge without creation. Vico's primitive men are
beautifully described by Auerbach as "originally solitary
nomads living in orderless promiscuity within the chaos of
a mysterious and for this very reason horrible nature.
They had no faculties of reasoning; they only had very
strong sensations and a strength of imagination such as
civilized men can hardly understand." To govern their
life, Vico's primitives created a system of ceremonial
magic that was what Vico himself called "a severe poem."
These primitives-giants of the imagination-were poets,
and their ceremonial wisdom was what we still seek as
"poetic wisdom." Yet-though this did not bother Vico
-this wisdom, this magic formalism, was cruel and selfish,
necessarily. The giant forms who invented poetry are the
anthropological equivalents of wizards, medicine men,
shamans, whose vocation is survival and teaching others to
survive. Poetic wisdom-to Vico-is founded upon divi-
nation, and to sing is-simply and even etymologically-
to foretell. Poetic thought is proleptic, and the Muse in-
60 The Anxiety of Influence
voked under the name of Memory is being implored to
help the poet remember the future. Shamans return to
primordial chaos, in their terrible and total initiations, in
order to make fresh creation possible; but in societies no
longer primitive such returns are rare. Poets from the
Greek Orphics to our contemporaries live in guilt cul-
tures, where the magic formalism of Viconian poetic wis-
dom is necessarily unacceptable. Empedocles may be
chronologically the last poet who meant his divination lit-
erally. That is, he believed he had made himself a god by
being a brilliantly successful practitioner of augury. Com-
pared to his blatancy, strong poets like Dante, Milton,
and Goethe seem consumed by the anxiety of influence,
miraculously free of it though they seem when we com-
pare them to the major Romantics and Moderns.
Curtius, in his famous account of the Muses, sees them
as a problem in historical devaluation or replacement, as
well as in continuity, and finds their significance for even
the Greeks to have been "vague." But Vico is very precise
as to the Muses' significance for his concept of the Poetic
Poets were properly called divine in the sense of diviners,
from divinari, to divine or predict. Their science was called
Muse, defined by Homer as the knowledge of good and evil,
that is, divination.... The Muse must thus have been
properly at first the science of divining by auspices. . . .
Urania, whose name is from ouranos, heaven, and signifies
"she who contemplates the heavens" to take thence the aus-
pices.... She and the other Muses were held to be daugh-
ters of Jove (for religion gave birth to all the arts of human-
ity, of which Apollo, held to be principally the god of divi-
nation, is the presiding deity), and they "sing" in the sense
in which the Latin verbs camere and cantare mean "fore-
Tessera or Completion and Antithesis 61
1 submit that these sentences (I have run them together
from several passages in Vico) have dark implications for
any study of poets and poetry. Poetic anxiety implores the
Muse for aid in divination, which means to foretell and
put off as long as possible the poet's own death, as poet
and (perhaps secondarily) as man. The poet of any guilt
culture whatsoever cannot initiate himself into a fresh
chaos; he is compelled to accept a lack of priority in crea-
tion, which means he must accept also a failure in divina-
tion, as the first of many little deaths that prophesy a final
and total extinction. His word is not his own word only,
and his Muse has whored with many before him. He has
come late in the story, but she has always been central in
it, and he rightly fears that his impending catastrophe is
only another in her litany of sorrows. What is his sincerity
to her? The longer he dwells with her, the smaller he be-
comes, as though he proved man only by exhaustion. The
poet thinks he loves the Muse out of his longing for divi-
nation, which will guarantee him time enough for fulfill-
ment, but his only longing is a homesickness for a house
as large as his spirit, and so he doesn't love the Muse at
all. Blake's The Mental Traveller shows us what the mu-
tual love of poet and Muse actually is. Yet what does the
poet's homesickness have in it that is valid? He errs in
seeking imagoes-the Muse was never his mother nor the
precursor his father. His mother was his imagined spirit
or idea of his own sublimity, and his father will not be
born until he himself finds his own central ephebe, who
retrospectively will beget him upon the Muse, who at last
and only then will become his mother. Illusion upon illu-
sion, since the earth, as Keats's Muse Moneta assures him,
is justified without all this suffering, this infliction of fam-
ily romance upon the traditions of poetry. Yet the burden
is still there. Nietzsche, the prophet of vitalism, who
62 The Anxiety of Influence
began by decrying the abuse of history, calls out: "But do
I bid thee be either plant or phantom?" and every strong
poet answers: "Yet I must be both."
Perhaps then we can reduce by saying that the young
poet loves himself in the Muse, and fears that she hates
herself in him. The ephebe cannot know that he is an in-
valid of Cartesian extensiveness} a young man in the hor-
ror of discovering his own incurable case of continuity. By
the time he has become a strong poet, and so learned this
dilemma, he seeks to exorcise the necessary guilt of his in-
gratitude by turning his precursor into a fouled version of
the later poet himself. But that too is a self-deception and
a banality, for what the strong poet thus does is to trans-
form himself into a fouled version of himself, and then
confound the consequence with the figure of the precur-
Freud distinguishes between two late phases of the fam-
ily romance, one in which the child believes himself to be
a changeling, and one in which he believes his mother to
have had many lovers in place of his father. The move-
ment between fantasies here is suggestively reductive, as
the notion of a higher origin and thwarted destiny yields
to images of erotic degradation. Blake, by insisting that
Tirzah or Necessity was mother only of his mortal part,
found (as almost always) a dialectic of distinctions that lib-
erated him from the concerns of the family romance. But
most poets-like most men-suffer some version of the
family romance as they struggle to define their most ad-
vantageous relation to their precursor and their Muse.
The strong poet-like the Hegelian great man-is both
hero of poetic history and victim of it. This victimization
has increased as history proceeds because the anxiety of in-
fluence is strongest where poetry is most lyrical, most
subjective, and stemming directly from the personality. In
Tessera or Completion and Antithesis 63
the Hegelian view a poem is only a prelude to a religious
perception, and in an advanced lyrical poem the spirit is
so separated from the sensuous that art is at the point of
dissolving into religion. But no strong poet, in his quest-
ing prime, can (as poet) accept this Hegelian view. And
history is no consolation, to him of all men, for his victim-
If he himself is not to be victimized, then the strong
poet must "rescue" the beloved Muse from his precursors.
Of course, he "overestimates" the Muse, seeing her as
unique and irreplaceable, for how else can he be assured
that he is unique and irreplaceable? Freud dryly remarks
that "the pressing desire in the unconscious for some irre-
placeable thing often resolves itself into an endless series
in actuality," a pattern particularly prevalent in the love
life of most poets, or perhaps of any post-Romantic men
and women cursed with strong imagination. "A thing,"
Freud adds, "which in consciousness makes its appearance
as two contraries is often in the unconscious a united
whole," which is a remark we will need to go back to
when we venture into the abyss of antithetical meanings.
In the wholeness of the poet's imagination, the Muse is
mother and harlot at once, for the largest phantasmagoria
most of us weave from our necessarily egoistic interests is
the family romance, which might be called the only poem
that even unpoetical natures continue to compose. But to
understand that the poet's difficult relation to precursor
and to Muse is a more extreme version of this common
malady, we need to recall Freud at his canniest. A rather
long passage of his darkest wisdom must be cited:
When a child hears that he owes his life to his parents, that
his mother gave him life, the feelings of tenderness in him
mingle with the longing to be big and independent himself,
so that he forms the wish to repay the parents for this gift
64 The Anxiety of Influence
and requite it by one of a like value. It is as though the boy
said in his defiance: ..I want nothing from father; I shall
repay him all I have cost him." He then weaves a phantasy
of saving his father's life on some dangerous occasion by
which he becomes quits with him, and this phantasy is com-
monly enough displaced on to the Emperor, the King, or
any other great man, after which it can enter consciousness
and is even made use of by poets. So far as it applies to the
father, the attitude of defiance in the "saving" phantasy far
outweighs the tender feeling in it, the latter being usually
directed towards the mother. The mother gave the child his
life and it is not easy to replace this unique gift with any-
thing of equal value. By a slight change of meaning, which
is easily effected in the unconscious-comparable to the way
in which shades of meaning merge into one another in con-
scious conceptions-rescuing the mother acquires the signif-
icance of giving her a child or making one for her-one like
himself, of course. . . all the instincts, the loving, the grate-
ful, the sensual, the defiant, the self-assertive and in-
dependent-all are gratified in the wish to be the father
of himself
If this is to serve as model for the family romance be-
tween poets, it needs to be transformed, so as to place the
emphasis less upon phallic fatherhood, and more upon
priority} for the commodity in which poets deal, their au-
thority, their property, turns upon priority. They own,
they are, what they become first in naming. Indeed,
they all follow the intuition of Valery, when he in-
sisted that man fabricates by abstraction, a withdrawal
that takes the made thing out from the cosmos and from
time, so that it may be called one's own, a place where no
trespass can be permitted. All quest-romances of the post-
Enlightenment, meaning all Romanticisms whatsoever,
are quests to re-beget one's own self, to become one's own
Great Original. We journey to abstract ourselves by fabri-
cation. But where the fabric already has been woven, we
Tessera or Completion and Antithesis 65
journey to unravel. Alas-in art-the quest is more illu-
sory even than it is in life. Identity recedes from us in our
lives the more we pursue it, yet we are right not to be per-
suaded that it is unattainable. Geoffrey Hartman notes
that in a poem the identity quest always is something of a
deception, because the quest always works as a formal de-
vice. This is part of the maker's agony, part of why influ-
ence is so deep an anxiety for the strong poet and compels
him to an otherwise unnecessary inclination or bias in his
work. No one can bear to see his own inner struggle as
being mere artifice, yet the poet, in writing his poem, is
forced to see the assertion against influence as being a ri-
tualized quest for identity. Can the seducer say to his
Muse: "Madam, my deception is imposed upon me by the
formal demands of my art"?
Our sorrows as readers cannot be identical with the em-
barrassments of poets, and no critic ever makes a just and
dignified assertion of priority. In urging criticism to be-
come more "antithetical," I only urge it farther upon a
road already taken. In relation to the poets we are not
ephebes wrestling with the dead, but more nearly necro-
mancers, straining to hear the dead sing. These mighty
dead are our Sirens, but they are not singing to castrate
us. As we listen, we need to remember the Sirens' own sor-
rows, the anxieties in them that made anxieties for others,
though not for ourselves.
I am using the term "antithetical" in its rhetorical
meaning: the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas in bal-
anced or parallel structures, phrases, words. Yeats, follow-
ing Nietzsche, used the term to describe a kind of man, a
quester who seeks his own opposite. Freud used it to ac-
count for the opposed meanings of primal words:
. . . the strange tendency of the dream-work to disregard ne-
gation and to express contraries by identical means of repre-
66 The Anxiety of Influence
sentation . . . this habit of the dream-work . . . exactly
tallies with a peculiarity in the oldest languages known to
us.... In these compound-words contradictory concepts are
quite intentionally combined, not in order to express, by
means of the combination of the two, the meaning of one of
its contradictory members, which alone would have meant
the same.... In the agreement between that peculiarity of
the dream-work . . . and this . . . we may see a confirma-
tion of our supposition in regard to the regressive, archaic
character of thought-expression in dreams. . . .
We cannot assume that poetry is a compulsion neurosis.
But the lifelong relation of ephebe to precursor can be
one. An intense degree of ambivalence characterizes the
compulsion neurosis, and from this ambivalence rises a
pattern of saving atonement which, in the process of po-
etic misprision, becomes a quasi-ritual that determines the
succession of phases in the poetic life-cycle of strong mak-
ers. Angus Fletcher, the demonic allegorist, splendidly re-
marks that the language of taboo for poets is the
vocabulary of Freud's "antithetical primal words." In his
study of Spenser, Fletcher characterizes the Romantic
quester as demanding "a mental space, a referential vac-
uum, to fill with his own visions." The quester, who finds
all space filled with his precursor's visions, resorts to the
language of taboo, so as to clear a mental space for him-
self. It is this language of taboo, this antithetical use of
the precursor's primal words, that must serve as the basis
for an antithetical criticism.
As students pursuing Poetic Influence we advance now
to the tessera or link, a different and subtler kind of revi-
sionary ratio. In the tessera, the later poet provides what
his imagination tells him would complete the otherwise
"truncated" precursor poem and poet, a "completion" that
is as much misprision as a revisionary swerve is. I take the
Tessera or Completion and Antithesis 67
term tessera from the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, whose
own revisionary relationship to Freud might be given as
an instance of tessera. In his Discours de Rome (1953),
Lacan cites a remark of Mallarrne's, which "compares the
common use of Language to the exchange of a coin whose
obverse and reverse no longer bear any but worn effigies,
and which people pass from hand to hand 'in silence.' ..
Applying this to the discourse, however reduced, of the
analytic subject, Lacan says: "This metaphor is sufficient
to remind us that the Word, even when almost completely
worn out, retains its value as a tessera." Lacan's translator,
Anthony Wilden, comments that this "allusion is to the
function of the tessera as a token of recognition, or 'pass-
word.' The tessera was employed in the early mystery reli-
gions where fitting together again the two halves of a bro-
ken piece of pottery was used as a means of recognition by
the initiates." In this sense of a completing link, the
tessera represents any later poet's attempt to persuade
himself (and us) that the precursor's Word would be worn
out if not redeemed as a newly fulfilled and enlarged
Word of the ephebe.
Stevens abounds in tesserae, for antithetical completion
is his central relation to his American Romantic precur-
sors. At the close of The Sleepers, in its final version,
Whitman identifies night and the mother:
I too pass from the night,
I stay a while away 0 night, but I return to you again
and love you.
Why should I be afraid to trust myself to you?
I am not afraid, I have been well brought forward by you,
I love the rich running day, but I do not desert her in
whom I lay so long,
I know not how I came of you and I know not where I go
with you, but I know I came well and shall go well.
68 The Anxiety of Influence
I will stop only a time with the night, and rise betimes,
I will duly pass the day 0 my mother, and duly return
to you.
Stevens antithetically completes Whitman by The Owl
in the Sarcophagus, his elegy for his friend Henry Church,
which can best be read as a large tessera in relation to
The Sleepers. Where Whitman identifies night and the
mother with good death, Stevens establishes an identity
between good death and a larger maternal vision, opposed
to night because she contains all the memorable evidence
of change, of what we have seen in our long day, though
she has transformed the seen into knowledge:
She held men closely with discovery,
Almost as speed discovers, in the way
Invisible change discovers what is changed,
In the way what was has ceased to be what is.
It was not her look but a knowledge that she had.
She was a self that knew, an inner thing,
Subtler than look's declaiming, although she moved
With a sad splendor, beyond artifice,
Impassioned by the knowledge that she had,
There on the edges of oblivion.
o exhalation, 0 fling without a sleeve
And motion outward, reddened and resolved
From sight, in the silence that follows her last word-
It seems true that British poets swerve from their pre-
cursors, while American poets labor rather to "complete"
their fathers. The British are more genuinely revisionists
of one another, but we (or at least most of our post-Emer-
sonian poets) tend to see our fathers as not having dared
enough. Yet both revisionary modes reduce in regard to
Tessera or Completion and Antithesis 69
the precursors. And it is this reductiveness which I judge
to offer us our largest clues for practical criticism, for the
endless quest of "how to read."
By "reductiveness" I mean a kind of misprision that is a
radical misinterpretation in which the precursor is re-
garded as an over-idealizer, major instances of which
would include the writings of Yeats on Blake and Shelley,
of Stevens on all the Romantics from Coleridge to Whit-
man, and of Lawrence on Hardy and Whitman, to men-
tion only the strongest of modern poets in English. Yet it
startles me to observe this pattern of reductiveness wher-
ever ephebes comment upon precursors from the High
Romantics until now, and not just in the wintry phases of
Stevens and other moderns. Shelley was a skeptic, and a
kind of visionary materialist; Browning, his ephebe, was a
believer and a fierce idealist in metaphysics, yet Browning
on Shelley is a reducer, who insists upon "correcting" the
excessive metaphysical idealism of his poetic father. As the
poets swerve downward in time, they deceive themselves
into believing they are tougher-minded than their pre-
cursors. This is akin to that critical absurdity which sa-
lutes each new generation of bards as being somehow
closer to the common language of ordinary men than the
last was. The study of poetic influence as anxiety and
saving misprision should help to free us from these more
absurd myths (or gossip grown old) of literary pseudo-
I propose, though, a more positive use for the study of
misprision, an antithetical practical criticism as opposed
to all the primary criticisms now in vogue. Rousseau re-
marks that no man can enjoy fully his own selfhood with-
out the aid. of others, and an antithetical criticism must
found itself upon this realization as being each strong
poet's largest motive for metaphor. "Every invention,"
Malraux says, "is an answer," which I interpret to mean
70 The Anxiety of Influence
an attempt at the overwhelming confidence of a Leonardo,
who was capable of asserting that "He is a poor disciple
who does not excell his master." But time has darkened
such confidence, and we need to begin again in realizing
for how long and how profoundly art has been menaced
by greater art, and how late our own poets have come in
the story.
All criticisms that call themselves primary vacillate be-
tween tautology-in which the poem is and means itself
-and reduction-in which the poem means something
that is not itself a poem. Antithetical criticism must begin
by denying both tautology and reduction, a denial best
delivered by the assertion that the meaning of a poem can
only be a poem, but another poem-a poem not itself.
And not a poem chosen with total arbitrariness, but any
central poem by an indubitable precursor, even if the
ephebe never read that poem. Source study is wholly irrel-
evant here; we are dealing with primal words, but anti-
thetical meanings, and an ephebe's best misinterpretations
may well be of poems he has never read.
"Be me but not me" is the paradox of the precursor's
implicit charge to the ephebe. Less intensely, his poem
says to its descendant poem: "Be like me but unlike me."
If there were no ways of subverting this double bind,
every ephebe would develop into a poetic version of a
schizophrenic. As the pragmaticists of human communica-
tion, following Gregory Bateson, say, the double bind
"must be disobeyed to be obeyed; if it is a definition of
self or the other, the person thereby defined is this kind of
person only if he is not, and is not if he is." An individual
in the double bind situation is punished for correct per-
ceptions. "The paradoxical injunction . . . bankrupts
choice itself, nothing is possible, and a self-perpetuating
oscillating series is set in motion" (see Pragmatics of
Human Communication by Watzlawick, Beavin, and
Tessera or Completion and Antithesis 71
Now, it ought to be clear that I am invoking an ana-
logue only, but what I have termed the ephebe's perverse-
ness, his revisionary movements of clinamen and tessera,
are precisely what keeps this double bind situation an an-
alogue rather than an identity. If the ephebe is to avoid
over-determination, he needs to forsake correct perception
of the poems he values most. Since poetry (like dream-
work) is regressive and archaic anyway, and since the pre-
cursor is never absorbed as a part of the superego (the
Other who commands us) but as part of the id, it is "natu-
ral" for the ephebe to misinterpret. Even the dream-work
is a message or a translation, and so a kind of communica-
tion, but a poem is communication deliberately twisted
askew, turned about. It is a mistranslation of its precur-
sors. Despite all its efforts, it will be always a dyad and not
a monad, but a dyad in rebellion against the horror of
one-way communication, that is, of the fantasy double
bind of wrestling with the mighty dead. Yet the strongest
poets deserve a qualifying panegyric at this point in the
downward and outward Fall of Poetic Influence.
By "poetic influence" I do not mean the transmission of
ideas and images from earlier to later poets. This is in-
deed just "something that happens," and whether such
transmission causes anxiety in the later poets is merely a
matter of temperament and circumstances. These are fair
materials for source-hunters and biographers, and have lit-
tle to do with my concern. Ideas and images belong to dis-
cursiveness and to history, and are scarcely unique to po-
etry. Yet a poet's stance, his Word, his imaginative
identity, his whole being, must be unique to him, and re-
main unique, or he will perish, as a poet, if ever even he
has managed his re-birth into poetic incarnation. But this
fundamental stance is as much also his precursor's as any
man's fundamental nature is also his father's, however
transformed, however turned about. Temperament and
circumstance, however fortunate, cannot avail here, in a
72 The Anxiety of Influence
post-Cartesian consciousness and universe, where there are
no intermediate stages between mind and outward nature.
The riddle of the Sphinx, for poets, is not just the riddle
of the Primal Scene and the mystery of human origins,
but the darker riddle of imaginative priority. It is not
enough for the poet to answer the riddle; he must per-
suade himself (and his idealized reader) that the riddle
could not have been formulated without him.
Yet, I accept finally (because I must) the massive excep-
tion of the strongest post-Enlightenment poets, since these
few (Milton, Goethe, Hugo) were the most triumphant of
modern wrestlers with the dead. But that perhaps is how
we can define the greatest, weak as they seem beside
Homer, Isaiah, Lucretius, Dante, Shakespeare, who came
before the Cartesian engulfment, the flooding-out of a
greater mode of consciousness. The burden for the critic
of poetic misprision is most powerfully stated by Kierke-
gaard, in his Panegyric upon Abraham:
Everyone shall be remembered, but each became great in
proportion to his expectation. One became great by expect-
ing the possible; another by expecting the eternal, but he
who expected the impossible became greater than all. Every-
one shall be remembered, but each was great in proportion
to the greatness of that with which he strove.
Kierkegaard might have the last word here, to chastise
the faithless critic, yet how many poets still-to-come can
deserve this great injunction? Who can bear this heavy
splendor, and how will we know him when he comes? Yet,
hear Kierkegaard:
He who will not work does not get the bread but remains
deluded, as the gods deluded Orpheus with an airy figure in
place of the loved one, deluded him because he was effemi-
nate, not courageous, because he was a cithara-player, not a
Tessera or Completion and Antithesis 73
man. Here it is of no use to have Abraham for one's father,
nor to have seventeen ancestors- he who will not work
must take note of what is written about the maidens of Is-
rael, for he gives birth to wind, but he who is willing to
work gives birth to his own father.
Yet Kierkegaard's father here is Isaiah, preternaturally
strong poet, and the text cited shatters where Kierkegaard
seeks to comfort. Perhaps the last word lies with the anxi-
ety of influence after all, and with Isaiah's prophecy of the
return of the precursors. What follows did not make Kier-
kegaard anxious, yet it is the dismay of poets:
Like as a woman with child, that draweth near the time
of her delivery, is in pain, and crieth out in her pangs; so
have we been in thy sight, 0 Lord.
We have been with child, we have been in pain, we have
as it were brought forth wind; we have not wrought any de-
liverance in the earth; neither have the inhabitants of the
world fallen.
Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body
shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for
thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out
the dead.
If the young man had believed in repetition, of what might he
not have been capable? What inwardness he might have attained!
The unheimlich, or "unhomely" as the "uncanny," is per-
ceived wherever we are reminded of our inner tendency
to yield to obsessive patterns of action. Overruling the
pleasure principle, the daemonic in oneself yields to a
"repetition compulsion." A man and a woman meet,
scarcely talk, enter into a covenant of mutual rendings; re-
hearse again what they find they have known together be-
fore, and yet there was no before. Freud, unheimlich here
in his insight, maintains that "every emotional affect,
whatever its quality, is transformed by repression into
morbid anxiety." Among cases of anxiety, Freud finds the
class of the uncanny, "in which the anxiety can be shown
to come from something repressed which recurs." But this
"unhomely" might as well be called "the homely," he ob-
serves, "for this uncanny is in reality nothing new or for-
eign, but something familiar and old-established in the
mind that has been estranged only by the process of re-
I offer the special case of the anxiety of influence as a
78 The Anxiety of Influence
variety of the uncanny. A man's unconscious fear of castra-
tion manifests itself as an apparently physical trouble in
his eyes; a poet's fear of ceasing to be a poet frequently
manifests itself also as a trouble of his vision. Either he
sees too clearly) with a tyranny of sharp fixation, as though
his eyes asserted themselves against the rest of him as well
as against the world, or else his vision becomes veiled, and
he sees all things through an estranging mist. One seeing
breaks and deforms the seen; the other, at most, beholds a
bright cloud.
Critics, in their secret hearts, love continuities, but he
who lives with continuity alone cannot be a poet. The
God of poets is not Apollo, who lives in the rhythm of re-
currence, but the bald gnome Error, who lives at the back
of a cave; and skulks forth only at irregular intervals, to
feast upon the mighty dead, in the dark of the moon. Er-
ror's little cousins, Swerve and Completion, never come
into his cave, but they harbor dim memories of having
been born there, and they live in the half-apprehension
that they will rest at last by coming home to the cave to
die. Meanwhile, they too love continuity, for only there
have they scope. Except for the desperate poets, only the
Ideal or Truly Common reader loves discontinuity, and
such a reader still waits to be born.
Poetic misprision, historically a health, is individually a
sin against continuity, against the only authority that mat-
ters, property or the priority of having named something
first. Poetry is property, as politics is property. Hermes
ages into a bald gnome, calls himself Error, and founds
commerce. Intrapoetic relations are neither commerce nor
theft, unless you can conceive of family romance as a poli-
tics of commerce, or as the dialectic of theft it becomes in
Blake's The Mental Traveller. But the joyless wisdom of
the family romance has little patience for such minor enti-
ties as might entertain economists of the spirit. Those
Kenosis or Repetition and Discontinuity 79
would be generous, little errors, and not grand Error it-
self. The largest Error we can hope to meet and make is
every ephebe's fantasia: quest antithetically enough, and
live to beget yourself.
Night brings each solitary brooder the apparent recom-
pense of a proper background, even as Death, which they
so wrongly dread, properly befriends all strong poets.
Leaves become muted cries, and actual cries are not
heard. Continuities start with the dawn, and no poet qua
poet could afford to heed Nietzsche's great injunction:
"Try to live as though it were morning." As poet, the
ephebe must try to live as though it were midnight, a sus-
pended midnight. For the ephebe's first sensation, as
newly incarnated poet, is that of having been thrown, out-
ward and downward, by the same glory whose apprehen-
sion found him, and made him a poet. The ephebe's first
realm is ocean, or by the side of ocean, and he knows he
reached the element of water through a fall. What is in-
stinctual in him would hold him there, but the antitheti-
cal impulse will bring him out and send him inland,
questing for the fire of his own stance.
Most of what we call poetry-since the Enlightenment
anyway-is this questing for fire, that is, for discontinuity.
Repetition belongs to the watery shore, and Error comes
only to those who go beyond discontinuity, on the airy
journey up into a fearful freedom of weightlessness. Pro-
metheanism, or the quest for poetic strength, moves be-
tween the antinomies of thrown-ness (which is repetition)
and extravagance (Binswangerian Verstiegenheit or poetic
madness, or true Error). This is merely cyclic quest, and
its only goal and glory-necessarily-is to fail. The
handful-since the old, great ones-who break this cycle
and live, enter into a counter-sublime, a poetry of earth,
but such a handful (Milton, Goethe, Hugo) are sub-gods.
The strong poets of our time, in English, who enter
80 The Anxiety of Influence
greatly into the contest of wrestling with the dead, never
go so far as to enter this fourth stage or poetry of earth.
Ephebes abound, a double handful manage the Prome-
thean quest, and three or four attain the poetry of discon-
tinuity (Hardy, Yeats, Stevens) in which a poem of the air
is achieved.
Where it, the precursors poem, is there let my poem
be; this is the rational formula of every strong poet, for
the poetic father has been absorbed into the id, rather
than into the superego. The capable poet stands to his
precursor rather as Eckhart (or Emerson) stood to God;
not as part of the Creation, but as the best part, the un-
created substance, of the Soul. Conceptually the central
problem for the latecomer necessarily is repetition, for
repetition dialectically raised to re-creation is the ephebe's
road of excess, leading away from the horror of finding
himself to be only a copy or a replica.
Repetition as the recurrence of images from our own
past, obsessive images against which our present affections
vainly struggle, is one of the prime antagonists that psy-
choanalysis courageously engaged. Repetition, to Freud,
was primarily a mode of compulsion, and reduced to the
death instinct by way of inertia, regression, entropy. Feni-
chel, grim encyclopaedist of the Freudian psychodynam-
ics, follows the Founder in allowing for an "active" repeti-
tion in order to gain mastery, but also in emphasizing
"undoing" repetition, the neurotic trauma so much more
vivid to Freud's imagination. Fenichel distinguishes, as
best he can, "undoing" from other defense mechanisms:
In reaction formation, an attitude is taken that contra-
dicts the original one; in undoing, one more step is taken.
Something positive is done which, actually or magically, is
the opposite of something which, again actually or in imagi-
nation, was done before.... The idea of expiation itself is
Kenosis or Repetition and Discontinuity 81
nothing but an expression of belief in the possibility of a
magical undoing.
The compulsion here remains that of repetition, but
with a reversal of unconscious meaning. In the isolation of
an idea from its original emotional investment, repetition
also remains dominant. "Beyond the pleasure principle,"
in Freud's famous phrase, is a dark area in any psychic
context, but peculiarly dark in the realms of poetry,
which must give pleasure. The hero of Beyond the Plea-
sure Principle, a boy of eighteen months playing his game
of fort!-da!, masters his mother's disappearances by
dramatizing the cycle of her loss and her return. To make
of the play-impulse another instance of repetition compul-
sion was another audacity on Freud's part, but not so au-
dacious as the great leap of ascribing all repetition im-
pulse to a regressive instinct whose pragmatic aim was
Lacan, himself a prodigious leaper, tells us that "in the
same way as the compulsion to repeat ... has in view
nothing less than the historizing temporality of the expe-
rience of transference, so does the death instinct essen-
tially express the limit of the historical function of the
subject." So Lacan sees the fort!-da! as the humanizing
acts of the child's verbal imagination, in which subjectiv-
ity combines its own abdication and the birth of the sym-
bol, "the acts of occultation which Freud, in a flash of ge-
nius, revealed to us so that we might recognize in them
that the moment in which desire becomes human is also
that in which the child is born into Language."
Lacan's sense of "this limit," our death, represents it as
"the past which reveals itself reversed in repetition." En-
croaching upon his curious blend of Freud and Heidegger
is the great shadow of the Kierkegaardian repetition, "the
exhaustion of being which consumes itself," as Lacan
82 The Anxiety of Influence
phrases it. Freudian repetition is interpretable only dual-
istically, like all psychoanalytic notions, for Freud expects
us always to separate manifest from latent content. Kierke-
gaard, too dialectical for such merely Romantic irony, for-
mulated a "repetition" closer to the ironies of poetic mis-
prision than the Freudian "undoing" or "isolation"
mechanisms could allow.
Kierkegaardian repetition never happens, but breaks
forth or steps forth, since it "is recollected forwards," like
God's Creation of the universe.
If God himself had not willed repetitIOn, the world
would never have come into existence. He would either
have followed the light plans of hope, or he would have re-
called it all and conserved it in recollection. This he did not
do, therefore the world endures, and it endures for the fact
that it is a repetition.
The life which has been now becomes. Kierkegaard says
that the dialectic of repetition is "easy," but this is one of
his genial jokes. His best joke about repetition is also his
first, and seems to me a grand introduction to the dialectic
of misprision:
Repetition and recollection are the same movement, only
in opposite directions; for what is recollected has been, is re-
peated backwards whereas repetition properly so called is
recollected forwards. Therefore repetition, if it is possible,
makes a man happy, whereas recollection makes him
unhappy-provided he gives himself time to live and does
not at once, in the very moment of birth, try to find a pre-
text for stealing out of life, alleging, for example, that he
has forgotten something.
Joking at Plato's expense, the theorist of repetition pro-
poses a possible but not a perfect love, that is, the only
love that will not make one unhappy, love of repetition.
Kenosis or Repetition and Discontinuity 83
Perfect love is to love even where one has been made un-
happy, but repetition belongs to the imperfect that is our
paradise. The strong poet survives because he lives the
discontinuity of an "undoing" and an "isolating" repeti-
tion, but he would cease to be a poet unless he kept living
the continuity of "recollecting forwards," of breaking
forth into a freshening that yet repeats his precursors'
Misprision, we can now amend, is indeed a doing amiss
(and taking amiss) of what the precursors did, but "amiss"
has itself a dialectical meaning here. What the precursors
did has thrown the ephebe into the outward and down-
ward motion of repetition, a repetition that the ephebe
soon understands must be both undone and dialectically
affirmed, and these simultaneously. The mechanism of
undoing is easily available, as all psychic defenses are, but
the process of repeating by recollecting forwards is not
easily learned. When the ephebe calls upon the Muse to
help him remember the future, he is asking her for aid in
repetition, but hardly in the sense that children ask a
storyteller to keep to the same story. The child learning
a story, as Schachtel suggests in his Metamorphosis, seeks to
rely upon the story, rather as we rely upon a favorite
poem to keep the same words the next time we open that
particular book. Object constancy makes exploration by
acts of focal attention possible, and Schachtel relies upon
this dependence when he optimistically disputes Freud's
insistence upon the prevalence of repetition compulsion
in the play of children. At the core of Schachtel's argu-
ment is a deep disagreement with Freud's profoundly re-
ductive theory of the origin of thought. Thought's precur-
sor, to Freud, is always and only a hallucinatory
satisfaction of need, a phantasmagoria in which wish ful-
fillment is displaced and the ego seeks more autonomy
from the id than it is capable of achieving.
84 The Anxiety of Influence
For the ego experiences "having been thrown" in rela-
tion to the id, and not to the censorious superego. The
ego psychologists may have been correct in their revision
of Freud, but not from the standpoint of the critic of liter-
ature, who rightly must ascribe the energies of creativity
to an area (however we name it) which has outered the
ego to meet the whole world of the Not-Me, or perhaps
better, the Pascalian "infinite immensity of spaces of
which I am ignorant, and which know me not." Cast out
into the external magnitudes of Cartesian matter, the ego
learns its own solitude, and seeks compensatingly for an il-
lusory autonomy, for what will deceive it into some sense
of being made free:
What makes us free is the knowledge who we were, what
we have become; where we were, wherein we have been
thrown; whereto we speed, wherefrom we are redeemed;
what is birth and what rebirth.
This Valentinian formula, Hans Jonas remarks, "makes
no provision for a present on whose content knowledge
may dwell and, in beholding, stay the forward thrust."
Jonas compares the Gnostic "wherein we have been
thrown" to the Heideggerian Geuiorfenheit and the Pas-
calian "cast out." A further comparison is suggested by the
situation of every post-Cartesian ephebe, who is a Gnostic
frequently in spite of himself. Perhaps, after all, Yeats's
dreadful greatness stems from his voluntary Gnosticism,
and his deep comprehension of how badly he needed it as
When we cease to expect, we may be rewarded. Keats is
so moving because he is so detached towards what is re-
quired of him as poet, yet so faithful in the fulfillment of
requirements. But any poem-even a perfect one, like
Keats's To Autumn-is a massing of misplacements.
Kenosis or Repetition and Discontinuity 85
Keats, even Keats, must be a prophet of discontinuity, for
whom experience at last is only another form of paralysis.
Between the poet and his vision of the true, unknown god
(or himself healed, rendered original, and pure) intervene
the precursors as so many Gnostic archons. Our young, a
while ago, were pseudo-Gnostics, believing in an essential
purity that constituted their true selves and that could not
be touched by mere natural experience. Strong poets must
believe something like that, and should always be con-
demned by a humanist morality, for strong poets neces-
sarily are perverse, "necessarily" here meaning as if ob-
sessed, as if manifesting repetition compulsion. "Per-
verse" literally means "to be turned the wrong way";
but to be turned the right way in regard to the precursor
means not to swerve at all, so any bias or inclination per-
force must be perverse in relation to the precursor, unless
context itself (such as one's own surrounding literary or-
thodoxy) allows one to be an avatar of the perverse, as the
French line Baudelaire- Mallarme- Valery was of Poe, or
Frost of Emerson. To swerve (Anglo-Saxon sweoifan) has
a root meaning of "to wipe off, file down, or polish," and,
in usage, "to deviate, to leave the straight line, to turn
aside (from law, duty, custom)."
Yet the strong poet's imagination cannot see itself as
perverse; its own inclination must be health, the true
priority. Hence the clinamen, whose fundamental assump-
tion is that the precursor went wrong by failing to swerve,
at just such a bias, just then and there, at one angle of vi-
sion, whether acute or obtuse. Yet this is distressing, and
not just to the sweet-at-heart in oneself. If the imagina-
tion's gift comes necessarily from the perversity of the
spirit, then the living labyrinth of literature is built upon
the ruin of every impulse most generous in us. So appar-
ently it is and must be-we are wrong to have founded a
humanism directly upon literature itself, and the phrase
86 The Anxiety of Influence
"humane letters" is an oxymoron. A humanism might still
be founded upon a completer study of literature than we
have yet achieved, but never upon literature itself, or any
idealized mirroring of its implicit categories. The strong
imagination comes to its painful birth thr.ough savagery
and misrepresentation. The only humane virtue we can
hope to teach through a more advanced study of literature
than we have now is the social virtue of detachment from
one's own imagination, recognizing always that such de-
tachment made absolute destroys any individual imagina-
Where there is detachment in confronting one's own
imagination, discontinuity is impossible. Where desire
ends, repetition pulses on, whether or not re-imagined.
There are no names, Valery said, for those things among
which a man is most truly alone; and Stevens urges his
ephebe to throwaway the lights, the definitions, in order
to find identifications replacing the rotted names that will
not grant a context of solitude. This darkness is a discon-
tinuity, in which the ephebe can see again and know the
illusion of a fresh priority.
The best passional analogue to this discontinuity is not
first love, but first jealousy, "first" meaning consciously
first. Jealousy, Camus has Caligula taunt a cuckolded hus-
band, is a disease compounded of vanity and imagination.
Jealousy, any strong poet would tell Caligula, is founded
on our fear that there will not be enough time, indeed
that there is more love than can be put into time. Discon-
tinuity, for poets, is found not so much in spots of time as
in moments of space, where repetition is voided, as
though the economics of pleasure had no relation to the
release of tension but only to our being lost in mind.
Let us return to Freud's still-startling late manifesto of
1920, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which relates erotic
foreplay to recurrent neuroses, and both to little Ernst
Kenosis or Repetition and Discontinuity 87
Freud's game of maternal abandonment, the celebrated
fort!-da!, so dear to the re-imaginings of Lacan. All these
are "repetition compulsions," and in the final Freudian vi-
sion, all are daemonic, self-destructive, and in the worship
of the god Thanatos:
Perhaps we have adopted the belief [the death instinct]
because there is some comfort in it. If we are to die our-
selves, and first to lose in death those who are dear to us, it
is easier to submit to a remorseless law of nature, to the sub-
lime necessity, than to a chance which might perhaps have
been esca ed. . . .
That is late Freud, but might be the late Emerson of
The Conduct of Life, with his grim worship of the Beauti-
ful Necessity. Both Freud and Emerson associate this sub-
lime necessity with aggression, and oppose to it an Eros,
though Freud's Eros is an enlarged vision of the libido,
and Emerson's a late, largely undefined version of the
Oversoul. Neither of them, at the end, was less than am-
bivalent towards the ego's mechanisms of defense against
the repetitions driving us to Thanatos. But, in the Freud-
ian accounts of such mechanisms, and particularly in what
I have already cited from Fenichel, a theoretical basis is
provided for criticism to describe the strong poets' defense
against repetition, their saving (but also dooming) adven-
ture in discontinuity.
To the study of revisionary ratios that characterize
intra-poetic relationships, I now add a third: kenosis or
"emptying," at once an "undoing" and an "isolating"
movement of the imagination. I take kenosis from St.
Paul's account of Christ "humbling" himself from God to
man. In strong poets, the kenosis is a revisionary act in
which an "emptying" or "ebbing" takes place in relation
to the precursor. This "emptying" is a liberatin discon-
88 The Anxiety of Influence
tinuity, and makes possible a kind of poem that a simple
repetition of the precursor's afflatus or godhood could not
allow. "Undoing" the precursor's strength in oneself
serves also to "isolate" the self from the precursor's stance,
and saves the latecomer-poet from becoming taboo in and
to himself. Freud emphasizes the relation of defense mech-
anisms to the entire area of the taboo, and we note the rel-
evance to the kenosis of the context of touching and wash-
ing taboos.
Why is influence, which might be a health, more
generally an anxiety where strong poets are concerned?
Do strong poets gain or lose more, as poets, in their wres-
tling with their ghostly fathers? Do clinamen, tessera, ken-
osis, and all other revisionary ratios that misinterpret or
metamorphose precursors help poets to individuate them-
selves, truly to be themselves, or do they distort the poetic
sons quite as much as they do the fathers? I am predicat-
ing that these revisionary ratios have the same function in
intra-poetic relations that defense mechanisms have in our
psychic life. Do the mechanisms of defense, in our daily
lives, damage us more than the repetition compulsions
from which they seek to defend us?
Freud, highly dialectical here, is clearest I think in the
powerful late essay, "Analysis Terminable and Intermina-
ble" (1937). If for his "ego" we substitute the ephebe, and
for his "id" the precursor, then he gives us a formula for
the ephebe's dilemma:
For quite a long time flight and an avoidance of a dan-
gerous situation serve as expedients in the face of external
danger, until the individual is finally strong enough to re-
move the menace by actively modifying reality. But one can-
not flee from oneself and no flight avails against danger
from within; hence the ego's defensive mechanisms are con-
demned to falsify the inner perception, so that it transmits
to us only an imperfect and travestied picture of our id. In
Kenosis or Repetition and Discontinuity 89
its relations with the id the ego is paralyzed by its restric-
tions or blinded by its errors, and the result in the sphere of
psychical events may be compared to the progress of a poor
walker in a country which he does not know.
The purpose of the defensive mechanisms is to avert dan-
gers. It cannot be disputed that they are successful; it is
doubtful whether the ego can altogether do without them
during its development, but it is also certain that they them-
selves may become dangerous. Not infrequently it turns out
that the ego has paid too high a price for the services which
these mechanisms render. [my italics; not Freud's]
This melancholy vision ends with the adult ego, at its
strongest, defending itself against vanished dangers and
even seeking substitutes for the vanished originals. In the
agon of the strong poet, the achieved substitutes tend to
be earlier versions of the ephebe himself, who in some
sense laments a glory he never had. Without as yet aban-
doning the Freudian model, let us examine more closely
the crucial mechanisms of "undoing" and "isolating," be-
fore returning to the darkness I have called kenosis or
Fenichel relates "undoing" to expiation, a washing-
clean that still obeys the taboo of washing, and which
therefore intends to do the opposite of the compulsive act
yet paradoxically performs the same act with an opposite
unconscious meaning. Artistic sublimation, on this view,
is connected to attitudes that intend an undoing of imagi-
native destructions. "Isolating" keeps apart what belongs
together, preserving traumata but abandoning their emo-
tional meanings, while obeying the taboo against touch-
ing. Spatial and temporal distortions frequently abound
in such phenomena of isolation, as we might expect from
the connection here to the primordial taboo on touching.
Kenosis is a more ambivalent movement than clinamen
or tessera, and necessarily brings poems more deeply into
go The Anxiety of Influence
the realms of antithetical meanings. For, in kenosis, the
artist's battle against art has been lost, and the poet falls
or ebbs into a space and time that confine him, even as he
undoes the precursor's pattern by a deliberate, willed loss
in continuity. His stance appears to be that of his precur-
sor (as Keats's stance appears to be Milton's in the first
Hyperion) , but the meaning of the stance is undone; the
stance is emptied of its priority, which is a kind of god-
hood, and the poet holding it becomes more isolated, not
only from his fellows, but from the continuity of his own
What is the use of this notion of poetic kenosis, to the
reader attempting to describe any poem he feels com-
pelled to describe? The ratios clinamen and tessera may
be useful in aligning (and disaligning) elements in dispa-
rate poems, but this third ratio seems more applicable to
poets than to poems. Since, as readers, we need to tell the
dancer from the dance, the singer from his song, how are
we aided in our difficult enterprise by this idea of a self-
emptying that seeks to defend against the father, yet radi-
cally undoes the son? Is the kenosis of Shelley in his Ode
to the West Wind an undoing, an isolating of Words-
worth or of Shelley? Who is emptied more fearfully in
Whitman's As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life, Emerson
or Whitman? When Stevens confronts the terrible auro-
ras, is it his autumn or Keats's that is emptied of its hu-
manizing solace? Ammons, walking the dunes of Corsons
Inlet, empties himself of an Overall, now acknowledged to
be beyond him, but does not the poem's meaning turn
upon its conviction that Emerson's Overall was beyond
even that sage? The palinode seems to be inevitable in the
later phases of any Romantic poet's progress, but is it his
own song he must sing over again in reversal? Dante,
Chaucer, even Spenser can make their own recantation
into poetry, but Milton, Goethe, Hugo recant their pre-
Kenosis or Repetition and Discontinuity 91
cursors' errors rather more than their own. With more
ambivalent modern poets, even poets as strong as Blake,
Wordsworth, Baudelaire, Rilke, Yeats, Stevens, every ken-
osis voids a precursor's powers, as though a magical undo-
ing-isolating sought to save the Egotistical Sublime at a fa-
ther's expense. Kenosis, in this poetic and revisionary
sense, appears to be an act of self-abnegation, yet tends to
make the fathers pay for their own sins, and perhaps for
those of the sons also.
I arrive therefore at the pragmatic formula: "Where the
precursor was, there the ephebe shall be, but by the dis-
continuous mode of emptying the precursor of his divin-
ity, while appearing to empty himself of his own." How-
ever plangent or even despairing the poem of kenosis, the
ephebe takes care to fall soft, while the precursor falls
We need to stop thinking of any poet as an autonomous
ego, however solipsistic the strongest of poets may be.
Every poet is a being caught up in a dialectical relation-
ship (transference, repetition, error, communication) with
another poet or poets. In the archetypal kenosis, St. Paul
found a pattern that no poet whatever could bear to emu-
late, as poet:
Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in
lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than them-
Look not every man on his own things, but every man
also on the things of others.
Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery
to be equal with God:
But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him
the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled him-
self, and became obedient unto death....
92 The Anxiety of Influence
Against this kenosis, we can set a characteristic dae-
monic parody of it which is the poetic kenosis proper, not
so much a humbling of self as of all precursors, and neces-
sarily a defiance unto death. Blake cries out to Tirzah:
Whate'er is Born of Mortal Birth,
Must be consumed with the Earth
To rise from Generation free;
Then what have I to do with thee?
A Manifesto for Antithetical Criticism
If to imagine is to mlsmterpret, which makes all poems
antithetical to their precursors, then to imagine after a
poet is to learn his own metaphors for his acts of reading.
Criticism then necessarily becomes antithetical also, a se-
ries of swerves after unique acts of creative misunderstand-
The first swerve is to learn to read a great precursor
poet as his greater descendants compelled themselves to
read him.
The second is to read the descendants as if we were
their disciples, and so compel ourselves to learn where we
must revise them if we are to be found by our own work,
and claimed by the living of our own lives.
Neither of these quests is yet Antithetical Criticism.
That begins when we measure the first clinamen against
the second. Finding just what the accent of deviation is,
we proceed to apply it as corrective to the reading of the
94 The Anxiety of Influence
first but not the second poet or group of poets. To prac-
tice Antithetical Criticism on the more recent poet or
poets becomes possible only when they have found disci-
ples not ourselves. But these can be critics, and not poets.
It can be objected against this theory that we never
read a poet as poet, but only read one poet in another
poet, or even into another poet. Our answer is manifold:
we deny that there is, was or ever can be a poet as poet-
to a reader. Just as we can never embrace (sexually or oth-
erwise) a single person, but embrace the whole of her or
his family romance, so we can never read a poet without
reading the whole of his or her family romance as poet.
The issue is reduction and how best to avoid it. Rhetori-
cal, Aristotelian, phenomenological, and structuralist criti-
cisms all reduce, whether to images, ideas, given things, or
phonemes. Moral and other blatant philosophical or psy-
chological criticisms all reduce to rival conceptualizations.
We reduce-if at all-to another poem. The meaning of
a poem can only be another poem. This is not a tautology,
not even a deep tautology, since the two poems are not
the same poem, any more than two lives can be the same
life. The issue is true history or rather the true use of it,
rather than the abuse of it, both in Nietzsche's sense.
True poetic history is the story of how poets as poets have
suffered other poets, just as any true biography is the story
of how anyone suffered his own family-or his own dis-
placement of family into lovers and friends.
Summary-Every poem is a misinterpretation of a par-
ent poem. A poem is not an overcoming of anxiety, but is
that anxiety. Poets' misinterpretations or poems are more
drastic than critics' misinterpretations or criticism, but
Interchapter: A Manifesto 95
this is only a difference in degree and not ~ t all in kind.
There are no interpretations but only misinterpretations,
and so all criticism is prose poetry.
Critics are more or less valuable than other critics only
(precisely) as poets are more or less valuable than other
poets. For just as a poet must be found by the opening in
a precursor poet, so must the critic. The difference is that
a critic has more parents. His precursors are poets and
critics. But-in truth-so are a poet's precursors, often
and more often as history lengthens.
Poetry is the anxiety of influence, is misprision, is a dis-
ciplined perverseness. Poetry is misunderstanding, misin-
terpretation, misalliance.
Poetry (Romance) is Family Romance. Poetry is the en-
chantment of incest, disciplined by resistance to that
Influence is Influenza-an astral disease.
If influence were health, who could write a poem?
Health is stasis.
Schizophrenia is bad poetry, for the schizophrenic has
lost the strength of perverse, wilful, misprision.
Poetry is thus both contraction and expansion; for all
the ratios of revision are contracting movements, yet mak-
ing is an expansive one. Good poetry is a dialectic of revi-
sionary movement (contraction) and freshening outward-
The best critics of our time remain Empson and Wilson
Knight, for they have misinterpreted more antithetically
than all others.
When we say that the meaning of a poem can only be
another poem, we may mean a range of poems:
96 The Anxiety of Influence
The precursor poem or poems.
The poem we write as our reading.
A rival poem, son or grandson of the same
A poem that never got written-that is-
the poem that should have been written by
the poet in question.
A composite poem, made up of these in some
A poem is a poet's melancholy at his lack of priority.
The failure to have begotten oneself is not the cause of
the poem, for poems arise out of the illusion of freedom,
out of a sense of priority being possible. But the poem-
unlike the mind in creation-is a made thing, and as such
is an achieved anxiety.
How do we understand an anxiety? By ourselves being
anxious. Every deep reader is an Idiot Questioner. He
asks, "Who wrote my poem?" Hence Emerson's insistence
that: ..In every work of genius we recognize our own re-
jected thoughts-they come back to us with a certain
alienated majesty."
Criticism is the discourse of the deep tautology-of the
solipsist who knows that what he means is right, and yet
that what he says is wrong. Criticism is the art of knowing
the hidden roads that go from poem to poem.
And now at last the highest truth on this subject remains unsaid;
probably cannot be said; for all that we say is the far-off remember-
ing of the intuition. That thought by what I can now nearest ap-
proach to say it. is this. When good is near you. when you have life
in yourself. it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall
not discern the footprints of any other; you shall not see the face of
man; you shall not hear any name;-the way, the thought. the
good. shall be wholly strange and new. It shall exclude example
and experience. You take the way from man, not to man. All per-
sons that ever existed are its forgotten ministers. Fear and hope are
alike beneath it. There is somewhat low even in hope. In the hour
of vision there is nothing that can be called gratitude. nor properly
joy. The soul raised over passion beholds identity and eternal causa-
tion, perceives the self-existence of Truth and Right. and calms it-
self with knowing that all things go well. Vast spaces of nature. the
Atlantic Ocean. the South Sea; long intervals of time. years, centu-
ries. are of no account. This which I think and feel underlay every
former state of life and circumstances. as it does underlie my pres-
ent. and what is called life and what is called death.
EMERSON, Self-Reliance
The strong new poet must reconcile in himself two truths:
"Ethos is the daimon" and "all things were made through
him, and without him was not anything made that was
made." Poetry, despite its publicists, is not a struggle
against repression but is itself a kind of repression. Poems
rise not so much in response to a present time, as even
Rilke thought, but in response to other poems. "The
times are resistance," said Rilke, to the poet's vision of
new worlds and times; but he might better have said:
"The precursor poems are resistance," for the Befreiungen
or new poems rise from a more central tension than Rilke
acknowledged. History, to Rilke, was the index of men
born too soon, but as a strong poet Rilke would not let
himself know that art is the index of men born too late.
Not the dialectic between art and society, but the dialectic
between art and art, or what Rank was to call the artist's
struggle against art; this dialectic governed even Rilke,
who outlasted most of his blocking agents, for in him the
revisionary ratio of daemonization was stronger than in
any other poet of our century.
100 The Anxiety of Influence
"The Daemons lurk and are dumb," Emerson mused,
and they lurk everywhere in him, quite audibly. When
the ancients spoke of daemons, they meant also (as Dray-
ton said) "them who for the greatness of mind come near
to Gods. For to be born of a celestial Incubus, is nothing
else, but to have a great and mighty spirit, far above the
earthly weakness of men." The power that makes a man a
poet is daemonic, because it is the power that distributes
and divides (which is the root meaning of daeomai). It
distributes our fates, and divides our gifts, compensating
wherever it takes from us. This division brings order, con-
fers knowledge, disorders where it knows, blesses with ig-
norance to create another order. The daemons make by
breaking ("Marbles of the dancing floor / Break bitter fu-
ries of complexity"), yet all they have are their voices, and
that is all that poets have.
Ficino's daemons existed to bring down voices from the
planets to favored men. These daemons were influence,
moving from Saturn to genius below, conveying the most
generous of Melancholies. But, truly, the strong poet is
never "possessed" by a daemon. When he grows strong, he
becomes, and is, a daemon, unless and until he weakens
again. "Possession leads to total identification," Angus
Fletcher observes. Turning against the precursor's Sub-
lime, the newly strong poet undergoes daemonization, a
Counter-Sublime whose function suggests the precursor's
relative weakness. When the ephebe is daemonized, his
precursor necessarily is humanized, and a new Atlantic
floods outward from the new poet's transformed being.
For the strong poet's Sublime cannot be the reader's
Sublime unless each reader's life indeed is a Sublime Alle-
gory also. The Counter-Sublime does not show forth as
limitation to the imagination proving its capability. In
this transport, the only visible object eclipsed or dissolved
is the vast image of the precursor, and the mind is wholly
Daemonization or The Counter-Sublime 101
happy to be thrown back upon itself. Burke's is the read-
er's Sublime: a pleasing Terror, with what Martin Price
terms "the counterstress of self-preservation." Burke's
reader yields to sympathy what he refuses to description;
he need see only the most indefinite of outlines. In dae-
monization, the augmented poetic consciousness sees clear
outline, and yields back to description what it had over-
yielded to sympathy. But this "description" is a revision-
ary ratio, a daemonic vision in which the Great Original
remains great but loses his originality, yielding it to the
world of the numinous, the sphere of daemonic agency to
which his splendor is now reduced. Daemonization or the
Counter-Sublime is a war between Pride and Pride, and
momentarily the power of newness wins.
As a theorist of misprision, I would stop here if I could,
to develop the Counter-Sublime as a state-in-itself, with-
out recourse to negative theology. But there is no daemon-
ization without an intrusion of the numinous, and no ac-
count of this revisionary ratio can exclude the idea of the
Holy. Every strong poet might want to say, with Blake
and Whitman, that everything that lives is holy, but Blake
and Whitman were so fully daemonized as not to be rep-
resentative. In most, there is a context against which the
numinous shines forth. This context is a void, emptied or
estranged by the poets themselves, while the shining-forth
returns us to all the sorrows of divination.
The ephebe learns divination first when he apprehends
the appalling energy of his own precursor as being at once
the Wholly Other yet also a possessing force. This appre-
hension, which in its early stages seems more the gift of
surmise than of divination, is independent of the will and
yet is altogether conscious. To divine the glory one al-
ready is becomes a mixed blessing when there is deep anx-
iety whether one has become truly oneself. Yet this sense
of glory, should it prove to be an error about life, is neces-
102 The Anxiety of Influence
sary for a poet as poet, who must achieve imagination here
by denying the full humanity of imagination. Nietzsche's
powerful wit is appropriate:
If, in all that he does, he considers the final aimlessness of
man, his own activity assumes in his eyes the character of
wastefulness. But to feel one's self just as much wasted as hu-
manity (and not only as an individual) as we see the single
blossom of nature wasted, is a feeling above all other feel-
ings. But who is capable of it? Assuredly only a poet, and
poets always know how to console themselves.
Negation of the precursor is never possible, since no
ephebe can afford to yield even momentarily to the death
instinct. For poetic divination intends literal immortality,
and any poem may be defined as a side-stepping of a possi-
ble death. The way of man which takes him through nega-
tion is a primal act, the act of repression, in which man
continues to desire, remains purposeful, yet denies desire
or purpose any conscious entertainment in his mind. "Ne-
gation only assists in undoing one of the consequences of
repression-the fact that the subject-matter of the image
in question is unable to enter consciousness. The result is
a kind of intellectual acceptance of what is repressed,
though in all essentials the repression persists." This
Freudian formulation is the exact reverse of daemoniza-
lion, and marks another limit that no strong poet can per-
mit himself to accept.
What precisely is "the daemonic" that makes the
ephebe into a strong poet? Any consciousness that will not
negate cannot live with the reality principle. But the ne-
cessity for dying will not allow itself to be evaded forever,
and men do not remain men without repression, however
strongly the repressed returns. The law of Compensation,
Emerson's "nothing is got for nothing," is felt even by
Daemonization or The Counter-Sublime 103
poets, despite their brief moments-of-moments in which
truly they are liberating gods. Whatever the Spirit is,
there can be no polymorphous perversity of the Spirit,
and an evaded repression yields only another repression.
"The daemonic," in poets, cannot be distinguished from
the anxiety of influence, and this is, alas, a true identity
and no similitude. The reader's terror of and in the Sub-
lime is matched by every post-Enlightenment strong poet's
anxiety of and in the Counter-Sublime.
Emerson, the unsurpassable prophet of the American
Sublime (which is always a Counter-Sublime), would pro-
test most beautifully against our sad murmur that after all
there is still the universe of death, our world: ", . . All
that you call the world is the shadow of that substance
which you are, the perpetual creation of the powers of
thought, of those that are dependent and those that are in-
dependent of your will.... You think me the child of
my circumstance: I make my circumstance." With loving
respect the student of misprision must murmur back:
"You do, you do, but if that circumstance is the poet's
stance, ringed about by the living circumference of the
precursors, then the shadow of your substance meets and
mingles with a greater Shadow." Shelley, with his character-
istic English balance, can be cited against Emerson here:
. . . one great poet is a masterpiece of nature which an-
other not only ought to study but must study. He might as
wisely and as easily determine that his mind should no
longer be the mirror of all that is lovely in the visible uni-
verse, as exclude from his contemplation the beautiful
which exists in the writings of a great contemporary. The
pretence of doing it would be a presumption in any but the
greatest; the effect, even in him, would be strained, unnatu-
ral and ineffectual. A poet is the combined product of such
internal powers as modify the nature of others; and of such
external influences as excite and sustain these powers; he is
104 The Anxiety of Influence
not one, but both. Every man's mind is, in this respect,
modified by all the objects of nature and art; by every word
and every suggestion which he ever admitted to act upon
his consciousness; it is the mirror upon which all forms are
reflected, and in which they compose one form. Poets, not
otherwise than philosophers, painters, sculptors, and musi-
cians, are, in one sense, the creators, and, in another, the
creations of their age. From this subjection the loftiest do
not escape.
Shelley's subjection, as he knew, was to the precursor
who had created (as much as anyone had, even Rousseau)
the Spirit of the Age. Against Wordsworth, Shelley be-
came a strong poet, from Alastor on, by a new kind of
questing flight, an upward movement in which neverthe-
less the Spirit was thrown outwards and down. Shelley's
daemonization was this upward falling away, and more
than any poet (even Rilke) Shelley compels us to see him
in the company of angels, the daemonic partners of his
quest for totality.
Paul de Man, expounding Binswanger, speaks of "the
imaginative possibility of what could be called an upward
fall," and the subsequent descent, "the possibility of fall-
ing and of despondency that follows such moments of
flight," or what roughly I have called kenosis. Binswan-
gerian Verstiegenheit (or "Extravagance," as Jacob Nee-
dleman wittily translates it, relying on the root meaning
of "wandering beyond limits") is spoken of by de Man as
a distinct imaginative danger; but falling upwards we can
distinguish as the process, and Extravagance as the state
ensuing. Thrown forth by the intoxicating glory of partic-
ipating in the precursor's strength, the ephebe appears (to
himself) to levitate, an experience of afflatus that aban-
dons him upon the heights, risen to an Extravagance that
is a "failure of the relationship between height and
Daemonization or The Counter-Sublime 105
breadth in the anthropological sense." This is human exis-
tence gone too far, the poet's particular melancholy, oddly
represented for Binswanger by Ibsen's Solness, who
scarcely seems adequate to so large a notion of dispropor-
tion. Binswanger's summary is useful if we read it back-
wards; rescue from Extravagance, he says, is possible only
by "outside help," as with the mountain climber too far
out upon his precipice to go back. Let us agree that a
strong poet, as poet, by definition is beyond "outside
help," and purely as poet would be destroyed by it. What
Binswanger sees as pathology is merely the perverse health
or attained sublimity of the achieved poet.
Van Den Berg, in a startling essay on the significance of
human movement, locates three domains that yield such
significance: the landscape, the inner self, the glance of an-
other. If we look for the significance of poetic movement,
in the sense of a poem's carriage and gestures even as we
speak of a human's, this transposes into: estrangement, sol-
ipsism, the imagined glance of the precursor. To appro-
priate the precursor's landscape for himself, the ephebe
must estrange it further from himself. To attain a self yet
more inward than the precursor's, the ephebe becomes
necessarily more solipsistic. To evade the precursor's
imagined glance, the ephebe seeks to confine it in scope,
which perversely enlarges the glance, so that it rarely can
be evaded. As the small child believes his parents can see
him around corners, so the ephebe feels a magical glance
attending his every movement. The desired glance is
friendly or loving, but the feared glance disapproves, or
renders the ephebe unworthy of the highest love, alienates
him from the realms of poetry. Moving through land-
scapes that are mute, or of things that speak to him less
often or urgently than they did to the precursor, the
ephebe knows also the cost of an increasing inwardness, a
106 The Anxiety of Influence
greater separation from everything extensive. The loss is
of reciprocity with the world, as compared to the precur-
sor's sense of being a man to whom all things spoke.
The thrust of daemonization is towards a Counter-
Sublime, or what post-Freudian vitalists like Marcuse and
Brown evidently hope to mean when they speak of what
Freud called a return of the repressed. Shelley, like all
strong poets, learned better (as poet, perhaps not as man),
and better than any other poet shows us now that the re-
pressed cannot return, not at least in poems. For every
Counter-Sublime is purchased by a fresh and greater re-
pression than the precursor's Sublime. Daemonization at-
tempts to expand the precursor's power to a principle
larger than his own, but pragmatically makes the son
more of a daemon and the precursor more of a man. The
gloomiest truth of post-Enlightenment poetic history is al-
most too sour for our humane taste, and all of Nietzsche's
dialectical exuberance did not succeed in obscuring a
truth we evade for the social good of the academies. The
daemon in each of us is the Latecomer; the blinded Oedi-
pus is the human, the total coherence that knows life can-
not be justified as an aesthetic phenomenon, even when
that life is wholly sacrificed to the aesthetic realm. Scho-
penhauer, and not Nietzsche, takes the honor here of hav-
ing confronted the truth, as Nietzsche must have known,
even in The Birth of Tragedy where he tries to overcome
his darker precursor by a direct refutation. Who can fail
to perceive in Schopenhauer's description of lyric poetry,
Nietzsche says, that it is presented as an art never com-
pletely realized? Authentic song-to Schopenhauer-
shows a state of mind mixed and divided between mere
willing and pure contemplation. As a daemonic son,
Nietzsche eloquently protests that the striving individual
who seeks his egoistic purposes is only an enemy of art,
Daemonization or The Counter-Sublime 107
and not its source. For Nietzsche, a man is an artist only
to the extent that he is free of individual will "and has be-
come a medium through which the True Subject cele-
brates the True Subject's own redemption in illusion."
Freud, in his beautiful humaneness, followed the earlier
Nietzsche in this highly qualified idealism, but time has
shown Schopenhauer's greater wisdom. For what is the
True Subject but repression? The ego is not the enemy of
art, but rather art's sad brother. Art's True Subject is art's
great antagonist, the terrible Cherub concealed in the id,
for the id is the huge illusion that cannot be redeemed.
The original sin of art, as Nietzsche so wonderfully exem-
plifies, is that a False Tongue vegetates beneath nature,
or to use less Blakean language, that no artist can forgive
his own origins as artist.
Freud's vision of repression emphasizes that forgetting
is anything but a liberating process. Every forgotten pre-
cursor becomes a giant of the imagination. Total repres-
sion would be health, but only a god is capable of it.
Every poet desires to be Emerson's liberating god, and in-
creasingly every poet fails. In Christian vision, our guilt
rises from repression of our higher nature or moral heri-
tage. In Freudian vision, our guilt stems from instinctual
repression, the balking of lower nature. In poetic vision,
guilt comes from repression of our middle nature, the
ground where morals and instincts must meet and sub-
sume one another. Daemonization, which commences as a
revisionary ratio of de-individuating the precursor, ends
by the dubious triumph of yielding to him the whole of
the ephebe's middle ground, or common humanity. In re-
lation to the precursor, the latecomer poet compels him-
self to a fresh repression at once moral and instinctual.
One of the lunatic paradoxes of post-Miltonic poetry in
English is that Milton appears (and perhaps was) freer of
108 The Anxiety of Influence
guilt, both moral and instinctual, when contrasted to
Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, or even to Keats among the
greatest of his descendants.
When Shelley re-wrote the ..Intimations" ode as his
Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, he underwent a daemoniza-
tion that burdened him, morally and instinctually, with a
program too intense even for his curiously tough and swift
spirit to carry through. Strong poems that too explicitly
re-write precursor poems tend to become poems of conver-
sion, and conversion is not an aesthetic phenomenon,
even when the convert is moving from Apollo to Diony-
sus, or back again. Here it is helpful to remember one of
Nietzsche's remarkable destructions of his own central in-
While the transport of the Dionysiac state, with its sus-
pension of all the ordinary barriers of existence, lasts, it car-
ries with it a Lethean element in which everything that has
been experienced by the individual is drowned. This chasm
of oblivion separates the quotidian reality from the Diony-
siac. But as soon as that quotidian reality enters conscious-
ness once more it is viewed with loathing, and the conse-
quence is an ascetic, abulic state of mind.
On this view. all influx is loss, and the price of
transport is a revulsion that the aesthetic realm cannot
contain. From naming. a god, Whitman passes to a disgust
that prevents any naming whatsoever:
o baffled, balk'd, bent to the very earth,
Oppress'd with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,
Aware now that amid all that blab whose echoes recoil upon
me I have not once had the least idea who or what I am.
But that before all my arrogant poems the real Me stands yet
untouch'd, untold, altogether unreach'd....
Daemonization or The Counter-Sublime 109
If we start again with the Freudian idea that tradition
is "equivalent to repressed material in the mental life of
the individual," then the function of daemonization is
rightly to augment repression, by absorbing the precursor
more thoroughly into tradition than his own courageous
individuation should allow him to be absorbed. Nietzsche
celebrates Oedipus as another exemplar of Dionysiac wis-
dom because he breaks "the spell of present and future,
the rigid law of individuation," but here the Nietzschean
irony is presumably most dialectical. The ephebe wres-
tling with and daemonizing the past is not Oedipus the
diviner, who could see, but blinded Oedipus, darkened by
revelation. Daemonization, like all mythification of the fa-
thers, is an individuating movement purchased by with-
drawal from the self, at the high price of dehumanization.
What Sublime can compensate for violence against the
Blinded Oedipus is equivalent to the crippled smith-
god, Vulcan or Thor or Urthona, for blinding or crip-
pling alike are castrating movements that hold back from
the full impairment of the imagining faculty. Daemoniza-
tion, as a revisionary ratio, is a self-crippling act, intended
to purchase knowledge by a playing at the loss of power,
but more frequently resulting in a true loss of the powers
of making. I t is a false Dionysiac gesture that reduces the
precursor's human glory by handing back all his hard-won
victories to the daemonic world. So Nietzsche told us, in
his backward critical glance at The Birth of Tragedy,
when he rejected his youthful vision of a world "made to
appear, at every instant, as a successful solution of God's
own tensions, as an ever new vision projected by that
grand sufferer for whom illusion is the only possible mode
of redemption."
Freud humanely saw the Oedipus complex as only a
phase in the development of character, to be superseded
110 The Anxiety of Influence
by the iiberich (superego) as mock-rational censor. Yet no
poet-as-poet completes such a development and still re-
mains a poet. In the imagination, the Oedipal phase de-
velops backwards} to enrich and make yet more inchoate
the id. The formula of daemonization is: "Where my po-
etic father's I was, there it shall be," or even better, "there
my I is, more closely mixed with it." This is Romanticism
as a study of the nostalgias, the primitivizing dream of so
many gloriously estranged sensibilities. To daemonize is
to reach that antecedent stage of psychic organization
where everything passional is ambivalent, yet to reach it
with the difference that makes a poem possible, the willed
perverseness of a double consciousness wholly centered on
the poetic survival value of malforming all that is past.
Nothing could be further from spontaneous aggression
than what I am terming daemonization, and yet they look
suspiciously alike. So many songs of triumph, read close,
begin to appear rituals of separation, that a wary reader
may wonder if the truly strong poet ever has any antago-
nist beyond the self and its strongest precursor. Here is
Collins, invoking Fear, yet what has he to fear except him-
self and John Milton?
Thou, to whom the world unknown,
With all its shadowy shapes, is shown;
Who seest, appalled, the unreal scene,
While fancy lifts the veil between:
Ah fear! ah frantic fear!
I see, I see thee near.
Wrapt in thy cloudy veil, the incestuous queen
Sighed the sad call her son and husband heard,
When once alone it broke the silent scene,
And he, the wretch of Thebes, no more appeared.
Daemonization or The Counter-Sublime III
Dark power, with shuddering meek submitted thought,
Be mine to read the visions old
Which thy awakening bards have told:
And, lest thou meet my blasted view,
Hold each strange tale devoutly true..
Here Fear is Collins' own daemon (as Fletcher ob-
serves), the more-than-poetic madness that beckons him
into the upward fall of Extravagance. Confronting the
daemonic, Collins wavers between Oedipus the seer and
blinded Oedipus, using the language and rhythms of Mil-
ton's Penseroso to daemonize the precursor, to locate Mil-
ton's baneful beauty where only it, the id, can dwell. Yet
at how high a price Collins purchases this indefinite rap-
ture, this cloudy Sublime! For his poem is one with his
deepest repression of his own humanity, and accurately
prophesies the terrible pathos of his fate, to make us re-
member him always, with all his gifts, as Dr. Johnson's
..Poor Collins."
Most of what we have called the madness or "perilous
balance" of the Bards of Sensibility was simply their exer-
cise of this dangerous defense, the revisionary ratio of dae-
monization. The natural history of Sensibility reduces to
the willful misprision of a too-consciously post-Miltonic
poetry. So much of the mid-eighteenth-century Sublime is
subsumed by this anxiety of influence that we must won-
der whether the revived Sublime was ever more than a
compound of repression and the perverse celebration of
loss, as though less could become more, through a conti-
nuity of regressiveness and self-deception. Yet more than
the Sublime transport of Thomson, Collins, Cowper is
placed in jeopardy by our gathering awareness. What of
Blake's Counter-Sublime, and Wordsworth's? Is all the ek-
stasis, the final step beyond, of Romantic vision only an
intensity of repression previously unmatched in the his-
112 The Anxiety of Influence
tory of the imagination? Is Romanticism after all only the
waning out of the Enlightenment, and its prophetic po-
etry only an illusory therapy, not so much a saving fiction
as an unconscious lie against the difficult human effort of
holding the middle ground between instinctual existence
and all morality?
If there are answers to these questions, they will not be
less dialectical than the questions themselves, or than the
Idiot Questioner within us that silently plots all such
questions as a pragmatic malevolence. Better to remember
the vision of our father Abraham, when "an horror of
great darkness fell upon him," and what the most poi-
gnant of the poets of Sensibility was compelled to make out
of it. "And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down,
and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning
lamp that passed between those pieces." Christopher
Smart, in his darkness, first cried out: "For the furnace it-
self shall come up at the last according to Abraham's vi-
sion," and then added, stung by the repressiveness of the
Covering Cherub, a more prayerful prophecy: "For
SHADOW is a fair Word from God, which is not returnable
till the furnace comes up."
Heaven bestows light and influence on this lower world. which
reflects the blessed rays. though it cannot recompence them. So man
may make a return to God. but no requital.
The Prometheus in every strong poet incurs the guilt of
having devoured just that portion of the infant Dionysus
contained in the precursor poet. Orphism, for latecomers,
reduces to a variety of sublimation, the truest of defenses
against the anxiety of influence, and the one most impair-
ing to the poetic self. Hence Nietzsche, lovingly recogniz-
ing in Socrates the first master of sublimation, found in
Socrates also the destroyer of tragedy. Had he lived to
read Freud, Nietzsche might somewhat admiringly have
seen in him another Socrates, come to revive the primary
vision of a rational substitute for the unattainable, anti-
thetical gratifications of life and art alike.
Whether sublimation of sexual instincts plays a central
part in the genesis of poetry is hardly relevant to the read-
ing of poetry, and has no part in the dialectic of mispri-
sion. But sublimation of aggressive instincts is central to
writing and reading poetry, and this is almost identical
with the total process of poetic misprision. Poetic subli-
116 The Anxiety of Influence
mation is an askesis, a way of purgation intending a state
of solitude as its proximate goal. Intoxicated by the fresh
repressive force of a personalized Counter-Sublime, the
strong poet in his daemonic elevation is empowered to
turn his energy upon himself, and achieves, at terrible
cost, his clearest victory in wrestling with the mighty
Fenichel, faithful to the Founder's spirit, almost sings a
paean to the splendors of sublimation. For, in Freud's vi-
sion, only sublimation can give us a kind of thinking lib-
erated from its own sexual past, and again only sublima-
tion can modify an instinctive impulse without destroying
it. Poets in particular, as Nietzsche might have remarked,
are as poets incapable of existing either with prolonged
frustration or with stoical renunciation. How can they
give pleasure, if in no way they have received it? But how
tan they receive the deepest pleasure, the ecstasy of prior-
ity, of self-begetting, of an assured autonomy, if their way
to the True Subject and their own True Selves lies
through the precursor's subject and his self?
Kierkegaard, in so unfavorably contrasting Orpheus to
Abraham, followed Plato's Symposium, where the poet-of-
poets is condemned for his softness, which appears to
mean his incapacity for sublimation. And truly, it would
seem odd to cite Orpheus as an exemplar of the ascetic
spirit. Yet Orphism, the natural religion of all poets as
poets, offered itself as an askesis. The Orphics, who wor-
shipped Time as the origin of all things, nevertheless re-
served their true devotion for Dionysus, devoured by the
Titans but reborn from Semele. This myth's sorrow is
that man, rising from the ashes of the sinful Titans, has in
him the evil Prometheanism and the good Dionysian ele-
ment. All poetic ecstasy, all sense that the poet steps out
from man into god, reduces to this sour myth, as does all
poetic asceticism, which begins as the dark doctrine of me-
Askesis or Purgation and Solipsism I 17
tempsychosis and its attendant fears of devouring a former
version of the self.
The ephebe, transforming himself through the purga-
tions of his revisionary stance, is the direct descendant of
every Orphic adept who rolled himself in mud and meal
that he might be raised out of the fury and the mire of
being merely human. Doom, for the Orphic, was to fall
victim to repetition compulsion, and so to carry water in a
sieve in Hades. Every hateful exclusiveness ever felt by a
Western poet is ultimately Orphic in its origin, but so is
every poetic Sublime from Pindar to the present. The
nausea of the poetic sufferer is indistinguishable from his
sublimity, to him, but few readers are as antithetical as
their poets, those liberating gods whose nostalgia is more
pungent than their divinity. Nietzsche was a master psy-
chologist in seeing that poets are far more intense in their
Dionysian self-deception than in their share of our com-
mon Promethean guilt.
A philosophy of composition (not of psychogenesis) is a
genealogy of imagination necessarily, a study of the only
guilt that matters to a poet, the guilt of indebtedness.
Nietzsche is the true psychologist of this guilt, which may
be at the center of his concern with the will-not so
much the will to power as a counter-will that rises in him,
seeking not strength but the disinterestedness that his
master Schopenhauer had sought. Nietzsche, though he
had transvalued disinterestedness, remained haunted by
"There is perhaps nothing more terrible in man's earli-
est history than his mnemotechnics," Nietzsche remarked,
for his insight associated every creation of a memory with
hideous pain. Every custom (including, we may surmise,
poetic tradition) "is a sequence of ... processes of appro-
priation, including the resistances used in each instance,
the attempted transformations for purposes of defense or
118 The Anxiety of Influence
reaction, as well as the results of successful counterat-
tacks." In The Genealogy of Morals, the sickness of bad
conscience is diagnosed as necessary, and at last as a phase
in the human creation of gods. Vice's "severe poem" of
our imaginative origins is gentle when contrasted to
Nietzsche's terrible vision of "the relationship between
living men and their forebears." The sacrifices and
achievements of the ancestors are sole guarantee for the
survival of early societies, who need to repay the dead:
the fear of the ancestor and his power and the con-
sciousness of indebtedness increase in direct proportion as
the power of the tribe itself increases, as it becomes more
successful . . . we arrive at a situation in which the ances-
tors of the most powerful tribes have become so fearful to
the imagination that they have receded at last into a numi-
nous shadow: the ancestor becomes a god.
Part of the repayment to the numinous shadow,
Nietzsche insisted, was the ascetic ideal, which in artists
meant "nothing or too many things." Against the ascetic
ideal, Nietzsche set the "antithetical ideal," and asked des-
perately: "Where do we find an antithetical will enforcing
an antithetical ideal?" Part of the answer Yeats sought to
embody from Per Arnica Silentia Lunae on in his life's
work, and perhaps Yeats gave a fuller answer (for all its
incompleteness) than any other post- Nietzschean artist,
until at last a curiously inverted vision of the ascetic ideal
came to mar his Last Poems and Plays.
It is not particularly pleasant to regard poetry, at its
strongest, as the successful sublimation of our instinctual
aggressiveness, much as though a Pindaric ode were of one
family with the triumph-songs of the geese described by
Lorenz. But what the poets call their Purgatory is largely
what Platonists, Christians, Nietzscheans, or Freudians
would agree to call a kind of sublimation, or ego defenses
Askesis or Purgation and Solipsism 119
that work. As the Freudian account of sublimation is the
most amiably reductive, we can profit by following it here.
The mechanisms of defense in sublimation are varied:
changes from passivity to activity, direct confrontation of
the dangerous forces or impulses, the conversion of the
forces to their opposite. To cite Fenichel: "In sublima-
tion, the original impulse vanishes because its energy is
withdrawn in favor of the cathexis of its substitute." Li-
bido flows on, undisturbed, but is desexualized, and de-
structive tendencies are drained off from the aggressive in-
flux of our energies and desires.
Freud, in The Ego and the Id, speculated that
sublimation was closely related to identification, an identi-
fication itself reliant upon distortion of aim or object,
which may go so far as transformation into the opposite. If
we convert this speculation into the context of our typol-
ogy of evasions, then sublimation becomes a form of aske-
sis, a self-curtailment which seeks transformation at the
expense of narrowing the creative circumference of pre-
cursor and ephebe alike. The final product of the process
of poetic askesis is the formation of an imaginative equiva-
lent of the superego, a fully developed poetic will, harsher
than conscience, and so the Urizen in each strong poet,
his maturely internalized aggressiveness.
Lou Andreas-Salome, whom we remember as the be-
loved of Nietzsche and Rilke and also as Freud's disciple,
followed another of her celebrated lovers, the melancholy
Tausk, when she observed that sublimation was actually
our own self-realization and might better be called "elabo-
ration." Elaborating ourselves, we become both Prome-
theus and Narcissus; or rather, only the truly strong poet
can go on being both, making his culture, and raptly con-
templating his own central place in it. But for this con-
templation, he must make a sacrifice, as every creation-by-
evasion, every latecomer's making, depends upon sacrifice.
120 The Anxiety of Influence
Cornford, in his Principium Sapientiae, remarks the
curiosity "that in Hesiod mankind first appears in connex-
ion with the sacrifice, when Prometheus cheated Zeus of
the better portion, as if sacrifice to the gods were, as in the
Babylonian doctrine, man's primary function. In Genesis
also the first sin committed after the expulsion of our first
parents from Eden was occasioned by the sacrifices offered
by Abel and Cain." Cornford concludes that all sacrifice is
done to renew human vitality. In the process of poetic
misprision, sacrifice diminishes human vitality, for here
less is more. Though we have idealized Western poetry al-
most since its origins (following in this the poets them-
selves, who knew better), the writing (and reading) of
poems is a sacrificial process, a purgation that drains more
than it replenishes. Each poem is an evasion not only of
another poem, but also of itself, which is to say that every
poem is a misinterpretation of what it might have been.
The gods cannot be bribed, Plato said, and so sacrifice
could not give gratitude for gifts supposedly to come. The
Phaedo proposes a truer catharsis for the philosophic soul:
"Purification ... consists in separating the soul as much
as possible from the body. . . and concentrating itself by
itself." Such radical dualism cannot be the askesis of the
poetic soul, where separation must take place within the
soul itself. Internalization is the poet's way of separation.
The soul's estrangement from itself is not intended, yet
follows from the attempt at estranging not only all precur-
sors, but their worlds, which means to have estranged po-
etry itself. Error about life is necessary for life, and error
about poetry is necessary for poetry.
Poetic askesis begins at the heights of the Counter-
Sublime, and compensates for the poet's involuntary shock
at his own daemonic expansiveness. Without askesis, the
strong poet, like Stevens, is fated to become the rabbit as
king of the ghosts:
Askesis or Purgation and Solipsism 121
The grass is full
And full of yourself. The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,
You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
Humped high, humped up, the poet will become a
carving in space unless he can wound himself without fur-
ther emptying himself of his inspiration. He cannot afford
another kenosis. Useful surrender, for him, is now a cur-
tailment, a sacrifice of some part of himself whose absence
will individuate him more, as a poet. Askesis, as a success-
ful defense against the anxiety of influence, posits a new
kind of reduction in the poetic self, most generally ex-
pressed as a purgatorial blinding or at least a veiling. The
realities of other selves and of all that is external are di-
minished alike, until a new style of harshness emerges,
whose rhetorical emphasis can be read off as one degree of
solipsism or another.
What the strong poet, like the solipsist, means is right,
for this egocentricity is itself a major training in imagina-
tion. Purgatory for post-Enlightenment strong poets is al-
ways oxymoronic, and never merely painful, because every
narrowing of circumference is compensated for by the po-
etic illusion (a delusion, and yet a strong poem) that the
center therefore will hold better. What Coleridge (as phi-
losopher, not as poet) called "outness," the theocentric
sanctioning of externals and of others, is of no interest to
the strong poet as poet. I am making the suggestion
(which I myself dislike) that in his purgatorial askesis the
strong poet knows only himself and the Other he must at
last destroy, his precursor, who may well (by now) be an
imaginary or composite figure, yet who remains formed by
actual past poems that will not allow themselves to be for-
122 T e Anxiety of Influence
gotten. For clinamen and tessera strive to correct or com-
plete the dead, and kenosis and daemonization work to re-
press memory of the dead, but askesis is the contest
proper, the match-to-the-death with the dead.
Yet, if we historicized any account that theorized subli-
mation, what else could we hope to find but a struggle
with all our ancestors? If all self-development is a sublima-
tion, and so merely an elaboration, how endlessly can we
desire the elaboration to proceed, how much elaboration
can we bear? Pragmatically, we want as much as will not
upset the ideas-of-order that keep us going, but we after
all (myself and those for whom I write) are not poets, but
readers. Can the truly strong poet bear only to be an elab-
oration of the poet who forever holds priority over him?
Yet there was a great age before the Flood, when influ-
ence was generous (or poets in their innermost natures
thought it so), an age that goes all the way from Homer to
Shakespeare. At the heart of this matrix of generous influ-
ence is Dante and his relation to his precursor Virgil, who
moved his ephebe only to love and emulation and not to
anxiety. Yes, but though no Shadow falls between Virgil
and Dante, something else stands in its place. John Free-
cero beautifully illuminates this great sublimation, an
ancestor of every subsequent askesis undergone by the
strong poet:
In the Purgatorio, XXVII, the pilgrim & Statius & Virgil
cross through the wall of fire, are met by the angel and all
the traditional trappings are there, including lots of father
& son talk. Walls, barriers, echoes of all of the ancient and
medieval themes you could imagine. This is also the point
at which Virgil disappears from the poem and is replaced
by Beatrice. What is not generally recognized, however, is
that it is also the point at which the greatest number of Vir-
gilian echoes appear, including the only direct quotation of
Virgil in the poem (in Latin), all of them deliberately
Askesis or Purgation and Solipsism 123
skewed: First, the words of Dido, when she sees Aeneas and
recalls the ancient passion that bound her to her husband
and so foresees her own death on the pyre: "agnosco veteris
flammae vestigia." In the Purgatorio Dante uses the line to
recall his first passion for Beatrice, as she returns: "conosco i
signi dell'antica fiamma:" Second, the angels sing, to greet
Beatrice: "Manibus 0 date Lilia plenis. . . ." This is the line
used by Anchises to point out the shade of the prematurely
dead son of Augustus in the "Tu Marcellus eris" passage
marking the ultimate echec in spite of the eternity of Rome.
Scholars say that what is meant is purple lilies of mourning.
The implication in Purgatorio is obviously the white lilies
of the Resurrection. The pilgrim turns to Virgil for help in
the face of the momentous return and finds the dolce padre
gone: "Virgilio, Virgilio, Virgilio," echoing Virgil's own con-
fession of the impotence of poetry in the story of Orpheus in
IV Georgic: "Eurydice, Eurydice, Eurydice." So the dark eros
of Dido is transformed by the retrospective redemption of
Beatrice's return, the eternity in the political order is at last
matched by personal immortality of the resurrection, poetry
becomes stronger than Death and for the first time in the
poem, the Pilgrim is named as Beatrice calls him: "Dante!"
-from a letter to the author
This naming-after-purgation is, however, the last
element here that remains ancestral, for every post-
enlightenment master moves, not towards a sharing-with-
others as Dante does after this great moment, but towards a
being-with-oneself. Askesis in Wordsworth, Keats, Brown-
ing, Whitman, Yeats, and Stevens, to examine a half-dozen
representative modern figures, is necessarily a revisionary
ratio that concludes on the border of solipsism. I shall
take these exampIes by pairs-Wordsworth and Keats,
Browning and Yeats, Whitman and Stevens, for in each
case the earlier figure is both a precursor and a sharer in a
common precursor: respectively Milton, Shelley, Emerson.
124 The Anxiety of Influence
Here is Wordsworth, in the grand fragment Home at
While yet an innocent little one, with a heart
That doubtless wanted not its tender moods,
I breathed (for this I better recollect)
Among wild appetites and blind desires,
Motions of savage instinct my delight
And exaltation. Nothing at that time
So welcome, no temptation half so dear
As that which urged me to a daring feat,
Deep pools, tall trees, black chasm, and dizzy crags,
And tottering towers: I loved to stand and read
Their looks forbidding, read and disobey,
Sometimes in act and evermore in thought.
With impulses, that scarcely were by these
Surpassed in strength, I heard of danger met
Or sought with courage; enterprise forlorn
By one, sole keeper of his own intent,
Or by a resolute few, who for the sake
Of glory fronted multitudes in arms.
Yea, to this hour I cannot read a Tale
Of two brave vessels matched in deadly fight,
And fighting to the death, but I am pleased
More than a wise man ought to be; I wish,
Fret, burn, and struggle, and in soul am there.
But me hath Nature tamed, and bade to seek
For other agitations, or be calm;
Hath dealt with me as with a turbulent stream,
Some nursling of the mountains which she leads
Through quiet meadows, after he has learnt
His strength, and had his triumph and his joy,
His desperate course of tumult and of glee.
That which in stealth by Nature was performed
Hath Reason sanctioned: her deliberate Voice
Hath said; be mild, and cleave to gentle things,
Thy glory and thy happiness be there.
Nor fear, though thou confide in me, a want
Askesis or Purgation and Solipsism 125
Of aspirations that have been-of foes
To wrestle with, and victory to complete,
Bounds to be leapt. darkness to be explored;
All that inflamed thy infant heart, the love,
The longing. the contempt, the undaunted quest,
All shall survive, though changed their office. all
Shall live, it is not in their power to die.
Then farewell to the Warrior's Schemes, farewell
The forwardness of soul which looks that way
Upon a less incitement than the Cause
Of Liberty endangered, and farewell
That other hope, long mine, the hope to fill
The heroic trumpet with the Muse's breath!
This askesis yields up a Wordsworth who might have
been a greater poet than the one he became, a more exter-
nalized maker who would have had a subject beyond that
of his own subjectivity. An enormous curtailment made
Wordsworth the inventor of modern poetry, which at last
we can recognize as the diminished thing it is. or more
plainly: modern poetry (Romanticism) is the result of a
more prodigious sublimation of imagination than West-
ern poetry from Homer through Milton had to undergo.
Wordsworth is in the unhappy position of celebrating not
a mere desexualization but a genuine loss of ..All that in-
flamed thy infant heart. the love.! The longing, the con-
tempt, the undaunted quest." His faith is that all these
"shall survive, though changed their office, all/Shall live,"
but soon enough his poetry will not sustain such a faith.
In Home at Grasmere, the expected recompense for this
sublimation is attempted immediately, in the next and
concluding passage of the fragment, which became the cel-
ebrated .. Prospectus" to The Excursion. Here the askesis
is revealed in its complete circumference, as much a re-
duction of Milton as it is of Wordsworth. And here too,
126 The Anxiety of Influence
Wordsworth's deepest obsession as a monstrously strong
poet is revealed:
. . . that my Song
With star-like virtue in its place may shine,
Shedding benignant influence, and secure
Itself from all malevolent effect
Of those mutations that extend their sway
Throughout the nether sphere!
In a sonnet written two years later, addressed to Milton,
the precursor is described as Wordsworth sees himself
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea;
Pure as the naked heavens, maestic, free....
The prayer then is to be an infl uence, and not to be in-
fluenced, and the precursor is praised for having been
what one has become. One's own pure isolation is now
Milton's isolation also, and having overcome Milton, one
asserts that one has overcome oneself. Wordsworth, whose
art depends upon persuading the reader that relationship
with external selves and landscapes is still possible, is an
immense master at estranging other selves and every land-
scape from himself. This healer heals only the wounds he
himself inflicts.
Keats, less than twenty years later, struggles with a pur-
gatorial burden remarkably similar, the need to sublimate
by internalizing "the undaunted quest" that could still
allow Milton a vision of War in Heaven. But the Keatsian
askesis is more drastic, for his Covering Cherub is a dou-
ble form, Milton and Wordsworth. In Keats, the purga-
tion becomes wholly explicit, and is the kernel of The
Fall of Hyperion, where his Muse Moneta confronts the
Askesis or Purgation and Solipsism 127
... "If thou canst not ascend
These steps, die on that marble where thou art.
Thy flesh, near cousin to the common dust,
Will parch for lack of nutriment,-thy bones
Will wither in few years, and vanish so
That not the quickest eye could find a grain
Of what thou now art on that pavement cold.
The sands of thy short life are spent this hour,
And no hand in the universe can turn
Thy hourglass, if these gummed leaves be burnt
Ere thou canst mount up these immortal steps."
I heard, I look'd: two senses both at once,
So fine, so subtle, felt the tyranny
Of that fierce threat and the hard task proposed.
Prodigious seem'd the toil; the leaves were yet
Burning,-when suddenly a palsied chill
Struck from the paved level up my limbs,
And was ascending quick to put cold grasp
Upon those streams that pulse beside the throat!
I shriek'd, and the sharp anguish of my shriek
Stung my own ears-I strove hard to escape
The numbness, strove to gain the lowest step.
Slow, heavy, deadly was my pace: the cold
Grew stifling, suffocating, at the heart;
And when I clasp'd my hands I felt them not.
One minute before death, my iced foot touch'd
The lowest stair; and, as it touch'd, life seem'd
To pour in at the toes....
What is sublimated here is the most integral instance of
a sensuous imagination since Shakespeare's. And what
ends here is Keats's poetry, though the poet lived on for a
year and several months after giving up this major frag-
ment. Surely his mortal illness is the base from which this
vision rises, but we need to ask: poetically, what is the
numbness that nearly destroys Keats here? The askesis
here is not of the senses, but of Keats's faith in them, a
faith so sublime as to be unmatchable in humanistic po-
128 The Anxiety of Influence
etry. Yet this faith, though rooted in Keats's temperament,
came to him from the young Milton, with his unitary
dream of human possibilities, a last sublimity of the Ren-
aissance, and from the young Wordsworth, visionary of
the Revolution. If Keats purges it from himself, he purges
it also from the earlier splendors of his Great Originals.
As matured (or ruined) men, they underwent their own
purgations but left their earlier visions extant. Keats does
for them what they could not bear to do for themselves:
he questions the deepest and most moving naturalistic il-
lusions that the spirit ever generated. And having ques-
tioned these, and his own best self with them, he is
granted a last vision of himself, but in the splendor of an
ultimate isolation:
Without stay or prop.
But my own weak mortality. I bore
The load of this eternal quietude....
The hardness of style, the inevitability of phrasing of
The Fall of Hyperion, stem from the Keatsian version of
askesis, a humanization that almost redeems this bitter
ratio of revision. With poets less balanced, there is no re-
demption. Browning and Yeats, both dependent heirs of
Shelley (with Browning also, by Yeats's confession, a "dan-
gerous influence" upon him), perform a massive self-cur-
tailment in their full maturity as poets. Browning's subli-
mation gave him his kind of dramatic monologue, and
with it the art of nightmare, unmatched in English:
Then came a bit of stubbed ground. once a wood,
Next a marsh, it would seem, and now mere earth
Desperate and done with; (so a fool finds mirth,
Makes a thing and then mars it, till his mood
Askesis or Purgation and Solipsism 129
Changes and off he goes!) within a rood-
Bog, clay and rubble, sand and stark black dearth.
Now blotches rankling, coloured gay and grim,
Now patches where some leanness of the soil's
Broke into moss or substances like boils;
Then came some palsied oak, a cleft in him
Like a distorted mouth that splits its rim
Gaping at death, and dies while it recoils.
And just as far as ever from the end!
Nought in the distance but the evening, nought
To point my footstep further! At the thought,
A great black bird, Apollyon's bosom-friend,
Sailed past, nor beat his wide wing dragon-penned
That brushed my cap-perchance the guide I sought.
For, looking up, aware I somehow grew
'Spite of the dusk, the plain had given place
All round to mountains-with such name to grace
Mere ugly heights and heaps now stolen in view.
How thus they had surprised me,-solve it, you!
How to get from them was no clearer case.
Yet half I seemed to recognize some trick
Of mischief happened to me, God knows when-
In a bad dream perhaps. Here ended, then,
Progress this way. When, in the very nick
Of giving up, one time more, came a click
As when a trap shuts-you're inside the den!
Burningly it came on me all at once,
This was the place! those two hills on the right,
Crouched like two bulls locked horn in horn in fight;
While to the left, a tall scalped mountain ... Dunce,
130 The Anxiety of Influence
Dotard, a-dozing at the very nonce,
After a life spent training for the sight!
What in the midst lay but the Tower itself?
The round squat turret, blind as the fool's heart,
Built of brown stone, without a counterpart
In the whole world. The tempest's mocking elf
Points to the shipman thus the unseen shelf
He strikes on, only when the timbers start.
Why call this the consequence of an askesis? Or why
find the same cause for Yeats's Cuchulain Comforted,
where the hero accepts the community of cowards as his
rightful place in the afterlife? "A poet and not an honest
man" is the whole of an aphorism by Pascal. To revise the
precursor is to lie, not against being, but against time, and
askesis is peculiarly a lie against the truth of time, the
time in which the ephebe hoped to attain an autonomy al-
ready tainted by time, ravaged by otherness.
Shelley initially converted both Browning and Yeats to
poetry by giving them an exemplar of self-consuming au-
tonomy, of the only quest that could bring them the hope
of re-begetting themselves. Both of them were to be
haunted by the moral prophecy of the Defence, where
Shelley says of the poets, however erring as men, that
"they have been washed in the blood of the mediator and
redeemer, Time." This is Orphic faith, and in its purity
neither Browning nor Yeats was strong enough to live and
die. Shelley's Orpheus is the Poet of Alastor, who beholds
the departure of Vision and Love, and cries aloud: "Sleep
and death/Shall not divide us long!" From this remorse-
lessness of shattered quest, Browning and Yeats had to res-
cue themselves, as sons of a poetic father whose imagina-
tive purity no descendant could bear to sustain.
When Childe Roland fails to recognize the Dark Tower
Askesis or Purgation and Solipsism 131
until it is upon him, despite a lifetime's preparation, or
when Cuchulain is content to sew a shroud, and then to
sing in chorus with his opposites, convicted cowards and
traitors all (like Roland's lost companions of the quest),
we are given radical emblems of askesis, and of its terrible
cost to the sons of too incorruptible an imaginative hero.
What is most terrifying about Shelley is his Orphic integ-
rity, the swiftness of a spirit too impatient for the compro-
mises without which societal existence and even natural
life are just not possible. Browning's immersion in the
grotesque and Yeats's addiction to brutality are both sub-
limations of their precursor's quasi-divine heroism, his as-
tonishing aberration with the Absolute. But in these cur-
tailments, as opposed to the sublimations of greater
figures like Wordsworth and Keats, we have more diffi-
culty in seeing that there was loss nearly as large as the so
much more palpable gain.
Freud's notion of sublimation is quantitative, and im-
plies always an upper limit beyond which instinctual im-
pulses rebel. Poetic askesis, as a revisionary ratio, is also
quantitative, for the Purgatory of poets is rarely a very
populated place. The poet and his Muse are inhabitants
enough, and frequently the Muse is missing. Childe Ro-
land and Cuchulain, heroic questers who can know defeat
only through its antinomies, are alone except for their lit-
tle bands of failures, traitors and cowards whose presence
testifies to all that is most equivocal in the fearful strength
of the heroes themselves. But the difference between
Childe Roland and his precursors, between Cuchulain
and his comforters, is that only the hero's purgation is an
askesis, a road through to freedom that is significant act.
Browning's monologue, like Yeats's visionary lyric, is an
evasion, and hence a curtailment of Orphic poetry, the
Shelleyan trumpet of a prophecy. Askesis in strong Ameri-
can poets emphasizes the goal of the process, self-sustain-
132 The Anxiety of Influence
ing solitude, rather than the process itself. Milton and
Wordsworth, whose mutual influence created the ethos of
post-Enlightenment English poetry, both accommodated
their fearful strength to the necessities of sublimation, but
the Great Original of a genuinely American poetry would
not. In Emerson, the power of the mind and the power of
the eye endeavor to become one, which makes askesis im-
As, in the sun, objects paint their images on the retina of
the eye, so they, sharing the aspiration of the whole uni-
verse, tend to paint a far more delicate copy of their essence
in his mind. Like the metamorphosis of things into higher
organic forms is their change into melodies. Over everything
stands its daemon or soul, and, as the form of the thing is
reflected by the eye, so the soul of the thing is reflected by a
melody. The sea, the mountain-ridge, Niagara, and every
flower-bed, pre-exist, or super-exist, in precantations, which
sail like odors in the air, and when any man goes by with
an ear sufficiently fine, he overhears them and endeavors to
write down the notes without diluting or depraving them.
. . . This insight, which expresses itself by what is called
Imagination, is a very high sort of seeing, which does not
come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it
sees; by sharing the path or circuit of things through forms,
and so making them translucid to others.
This is the American Sublime, which will not surren-
der the pleasure principle to the reality principle, even in
the expectation that deferred fulfillment will protect the
pleasure principle. The eye, most tyrannous of the bodily
senses, from which nature freed Milton, and from which
Wordsworth freed nature, is in American poetry a rage
and a program. Where the eye dominates, without curtail-
ment, askesis tends to center on the selfs awareness of
other selves. The solipsism of our major poets-Emerson,
Askesis or Purgation and Solipsism 133
Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Stevens, Crane-is aug-
mented because the eye declines to be purged. Reality re-
duces to the Emersonian Me and the Not-Me (my body
and nature), and excludes all others, except insofar as the
precursors have become inescapable components of the
Whitman, in Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, sees "the sunset,
the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea
of the ebb-tide," and is comforted that others coming after
him will see as and what he does. But his majestic poem,
like all his wholly realized works, is centered only on his
isolate self, and on Emersonian seeing, which is not far
from shamanistic practice, and has little to do with obser-
vation of externals. In Whitman, the Emersonian isola-
tion deepens, the eye becomes even more tyrannical, and
as the eye's power identifies with the sun, an immense as-
kesis is accomplished:
Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise
would kill me
If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me.
We also ascend dazzling and tremendous as the sun,
We found our own a my soul in the calm and cool
of the daybreak.
My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach,
With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and
volumes of worlds.
Why call this limitless expansiveness an askesist In this
enormous elaboration of Emerson, what is being offered
up for sublimation? What curtailment makes of Whitman
this voice that sees what even his sight cannot reach? Ifnoth-
ing is got for nothing, as Emersonian Compensation in-
sisted, for what loss is the Emersonian bard compensated in
this solipsistic sunrise? The loss is what Emerson called
134 The Anxiety of Influence
"a great Defeat" (of which Christ was an example), and
Emerson added: "we demand victory." Christ "did well.
. . . But he that shall come shall do better. The mind re-
quires a far higher exhibition of character, one which
shall make itself good to the senses as well as to the soul; a
success to the senses as well as to the soul." Whitman's in-
carnation as the sun is an Emersonian great Defeat, a flow-
ing-in that contains an ebbing-out, an askesis of the Emer-
sonian prophecy of the Central Bard who shall come:
In the far South the sun of autumn is passing
Like Walt Whitman walking along a ruddy shore.
He is singing and chanting the things that are part of him,
The worlds that were and will be, death and day.
Nothing is final. he chants. No man shall see the end.
His beard is of fire and his staff is a leaping flame.
A discussion of poetic askesis must come at last to
Stevens, whose work is dominated by that revisionary
ratio. Stevens, who had "a passion for yes," resisted his
own rigorous sublimations. He regrets not being"A more
severe, / More harassing master," yet he was anything but
an ascetic of the spirit, and would have been happy to
make poems even more like pineapples. The primary pas-
sion in him is the Orphic aspiration of Emerson and
Whitman, the quest for an American Sublime, but the
anxiety of influence malformed this passion, and Stevens
consequently developed a tendency to speak more reduc-
tively than he himself could bear to accept. At his best,
Stevens labored to "make the visible a little hard/To see,"
in defiance of his own tradition, but throughout his po-
etry the purgation-by-solitude reaches after an amplitude
unknown even in Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson.
"Freud's eye," Stevens wrote, "was the microscope of po-
tency," and Stevens; more than any modern oet, com-
Askesis or Purgation and Solipsism 135
posed naturally out of the state of being Psychological
Man. Sublimation in Stevens is a curtailment of a Keats-
ian sensibility, of a mind that has obeyed Moneta's in-
junction to "think of the earth" only to discover that such
thought does not suffice:
Nothing could be more hushed than the way
The moon moves toward the night.
But what his mother was returns and cries on his breast.
The red ripeness of round leaves is thick
With the spices of red summer,
But she that he loved turns cold at his light touch.
What good is it that the earth is justified,
That it is complete, that it is an end,
That in itself it is enough?
In Stevens, the reader confronts an askesis of the entire
Romantic tradition, of Wordsworth as much as Keats,
Emerson as well as Whitman. No modern poet half so
strong as Stevens chose so large a self-curtailment, sacri-
ficed so much instinctual impulse in the name of being a
latecomer. Freud, revising himself, at last concluded that
it was anxiety that produced repression and not repression
that produced anxiety, a realization everywhere exempli-
fied by Stevens' poetry. Imaginatively Stevens knew that
both ego and id are organized systems, and even organized
against one another, but perhaps Stevens was better off
not knowing that his ego anxieties about priority and
originality were provoked perpetually by his id's absorp-
tion of his precursors, who therefore operated in him not
as censorious powers, but almost as varieties of the instinc-
tual life. A Romantic humanist thus by temperament, but
a reductive ironist in his anxieties, Stevens became an as-
tonishing blend of poetic strains, foreign and native. He
demonstrates that the strongest modern poetry is created
1!J6 The Anxiety oj Influence
by askesis, but leaves us sorrowful for the curtailment of
what he might have done, if free of the terrible necessities
of misprision, as here of Emerson:
The afternoon is visibly a source,
Too wide, too irised, to be more than calm,
Too much like thinking to be less than thought,
Obscurest parent, obscurest patriarch,
A daily majesty of meditation,
That comes and goes in silences of its own,
We think, then, as the sun shines or does not.
We think as wind skitters on a pond in a field
Or we put mantles on our words because
The same wind, rising and rising, makes a sound
Like the last muting of winter as it ends.
A new scholar replacing an older one reflects
A moment on this fantasia. He seeks
For a human that can be accounted for.
The search for a human that can be accounted for, a
search that is a diminishment of the larger Emersonian
dream, threatens also to be not what Emerson called a
great Defeat, but the kind of defeat appropriate to the as-
cetic spirit, or a defeat of poetry itself.
No anchorage is.
Sleep is not, death is not;
Who seem to die live.
Empedocles held that our psyche at death returned to the
fire whence it came. But our daemon, at once our guilt
and our ever-potential divinity, came to us not from the
fire but from our precursors. The stolen element had to
be returned; the daemon was never stolen but inherited,
and at death was passed on to the ephebe, the latecomer
who could accept both the crime and the godhood at
The genealogy of imagination traces the descent of the
daemon, and never of the psyche, but analogues abound
between these descents:
It may be that one life is a punishment
For another. as the son's life for the father's.
It may be that one strong poet's work expiates for the
work of a precursor. It seems more likely that later visions
cleanse themselves at the expense of earlier ones. But the
strong dead return, in poems as in our lives, and they do
not come back without darkening the living. The wholly
140 The Anxiety of Influence
mature strong poet is peculiarly vulnerable to this last
phase of his revisionary relationship to the dead. This vul-
nerability is most evident in poems that quest for a final
clarity, that seek to be definitive statements, testaments to
what is uniquely the strong poet's gift (or what he wishes
us to remember as his unique gift):
1 arose, and for a space
The scene of woods and waters seemed to keep,
Though it was now broad day, a gentle trace
Of light diviner than the common sun
Sheds on the common earth, and all the place
Was filled with magic sounds woven into one
Oblivious melody, confusing sense. . . .
Here, at his end, Shelley is open again to the terror of
Wordsworth's "Intimations" ode, and yields to his precur-
sor's "light of common day":
-I among the multitude
Was swept-me, sweetest flowers-delayed not long;
Me, not the shadow nor the solitude,
Me, not that falling stream's Lethean song;
Me, not the phantom of that early Form
Which moved upon its motion-but among
The thickest billows of that living storm
1 plunged, and bared my bosom to the clime
Of that cold light, whose airs too soon deform.
By 1822, when Shelley experienced this last vision, the
poet Wordsworth was long dead (though the man Words-
worth survived Shelley by twenty-eight years, until 1850).
But strong poets keep returning from the dead, and only
through the quasi-willing mediumship of other strong
Apophrades or The Return of the Dead 141
poets. How they return is the decisive matter, for if they
return intact, then the return impoverishes the later
poets, dooming them to be remembered-if at all-as
having ended in poverty, in an imaginative need they
could not themselves gratify.
The apophrades, the dismal or unlucky days upon
which the dead return to inhabit their former houses,
come to the strongest poets, but with the very strongest
there is a grand and final revisionary movement that puri-
fies even this last influx. Yeats and Stevens, the strongest
poets of our century, and Browning and Dickinson, the
strongest of the later nineteenth century, can give us vivid
instances of this most cunning of revisionary ratios. For all
of them achieve a style that captures and oddly retains
priority over their precursors, so that the tyranny of time
almost is overturned, and one can believe, for startled mo-
ments, that they are being imitated by their ancestors.
In this observation, I want to distinguish the phenome-
non from the witty insight of Borges, that artists create
their precursors, as for instance the Kafka of Borges cre-
ates the Browning of Borges. I mean something more dras-
tic and (presumably) absurd, which is the triumph of hav-
ing so stationed the precursor, in one's own work, that
particular passages in his work seem to be not presages of
one's own advent, but rather to be indebted to one's own
achievement, and even (necessarily) to be lessened by
one's greater splendor. The mighty dead return, but they
return in our colors, and speaking in our voices, at least
in part, at least in moments, moments that testify to our
persistence, and not to their own. If they return wholly in
their own strength, then the triumph is theirs:
The edges of the summit still appal
When we brood on the dead or the belove'd;
Nor can imagination do it all
142 The Anxiety of Influence
In this last place of light; he dares to live
Who stops being a bird, yet beats his wings
Against the immense immeasurable emptiness of things.
Roethke hoped that was late Roethke, but alas it is the
Yeats of The Tower and The Winding Stair. Roethke
hoped this was late Roethke, but alas it is the Eliot of the
All journeys, I think, are the same:
The movement is forward, after a few wavers,
And for a while we are all alone,
Busy, obvious with ourselves....
There is late Roethke that is the Stevens of Transport
to Summer, and late Roethke that is the Whitman of Li-
lacs, but sorrowfully there is very little late Roethke that
is late Roethke, for in Roethke the apophrades came as
devastation, and took away his strength, which neverthe-
less had been realized, which had become something of
his own. Of apophrades in its positive, revisionary sense,
he gives us no instance; there are no passages in Yeats or
Eliot, in Stevens or Whitman, that can strike us as having
been written by Roethke. In the exquisite squalors of
Tennyson's The Holy Grail, as Percival rides out on his
ruinous quest, we can experience the hallucination of be-
lieving that the Laureate is overly influenced by The
Waste Land, for Eliot too became a master at reversing
the apophrades. Or, in our present moment, the achieve-
ment of John Ashbery in his powerful poem Fragment (in
his volume The Double Dream of Spring) is to return us
to Stevens, somewhat uneasily to discover that at moments
Stevens sounds rather too much like Ashbery, an accom-
plishment I might not have thought possible.
The strangeness added to beauty by the positive apo-
phrades is of that kind whose best expositor was Pater.
Apophrades or The Return of the Dead 143
Perhaps all Romantic style, at its heights, depends upon a
successful manifestation of the dead in the garments of the
living, as though the dead poets were given a suppler free-
dom than they had found for themselves. Contrast the Ste-
vens of Le Monocle de Mon Oncle with the Fragment of
John Ashbery, the most legitimate of the sons of Stevens:
Like a dull scholar, I behold, in love,
An ancient aspect touching a new mind.
It comes, it blooms, it bears its fruit and dies.
This trivial trope reveals a way of truth.
Our bloom is gone. \Ne are the fruit thereof.
Two golden gourds distended on our vines,
Into the autumn weather, splashed with frost,
Distorted by hale fatness, turned grotesque.
We hang like warty squashes, streaked and rayed,
The laughing sky will see the two of us,
Washed into rinds by rotting winter rains.
-Le Monocle, VIII
Like the blood orange we have a single
Vocabulary all heart and all skin and can see
Through the dust of incisions the central perimeter
Our imaginations orbit. Other words,
Old ways are but the trappings and appurtenances
Meant to install change around us like a grotto.
There is nothing laughable
In this. To isolate the kernel of
Our imbalance and at the same time back up carefully
Its tulip head whole, an imagined good.
-Fragment, XlII
An older view of influence would remark that the sec-
ond of these stanzas "derives" from the first, but an aware-
ness of the revisionary ratio of apophrades unveils Ash-
bery's relative triumph in his involuntary match with the
dead. This particular strain, while it matters, is not cen-
144 The Anxiety of Influence
tral to Stevens, but is the greatness of Ashbery whenever,
with terrible difficulty, he can win free to it. When I read
Le Monocle de Mon Oncle now, in isolation from other
poems by Stevens, I am compelled to hear Ashbery's
voice, for this mode has been captured by him, inescapa-
blyand perhaps forever. When I read Fragment, I tend
not to be aware of Stevens, for his presence has been ren-
dered benign. In early Ashbery, amid the promise and
splendors of his first volume, Some Trees, the massive
dominance of Stevens could not be evaded, though a eli-
namen away from the master had already been evidenced:
The young man places a bird-house
Against the blue sea. He walks away
And it remains. Now other
Men appear, but they live in boxes.
The sea protects them like a wall.
The gods worship a line-drawing
Of a woman, in the shadow of the sea
Which goes on writing. Are there
Collisions, communications on the shore
Or did all secrets vanish when
The woman left? Is the bird mentioned
In the waves' minutes, or did the land advance?
-Le Livre est sur la Table, 11
This is the mode of The Man with the Blue Guitar,
and urgently attempts to swerve away from a vision whose
severity it cannot bear:
Slowly the ivy on the stones
Becomes the stones. Women become
The cities, children become the fields
And men in waves become the sea.
Apophrades or The Return of the Dead 145
It is the chord that falsifies.
The sea returns upon the men,
The fields entrap the children, brick
Is a weed and all the flies are caught,
Wingless and withered, but living alive.
The discord merely magnifies.
Deeper within the belly's dark,
Of time, time grows upon the rock.
- The Man with the Blue Guitar, XI
The early Ashbery poem implies that there are "colli-
sions, communications" among us, even in confrontation
of the sea, a universe of sense that asserts its power over
our minds. But the parent-poem, though it will resolve it-
self in a similar quasi-comfort, harasses the poet and his
readers with the intenser realization that "the discord
merely magnifies," when our "collisions, communications"
sound out against the greater rhythms of the sea. Where
the early Ashbery attempted vainly to soften his poetic fa-
ther, the mature Ashbery of Fragment subverts and even
captures the precursor even as he appears to accept him
more fully. The ephebe may still not be mentioned in the
father's minutes, but his own vision has advanced. Stevens
hesitated almost always until his last phase, unable firmly
to adhere to or reject the High Romantic insistence that
the power of the poet's mind could triumph over the uni-
verse of death, or the estranged object-world. It is not
every day, he says in his Adagio, that the world arranges
itself in a poem. His nobly desperate disciple, Ashbery,
has dared the dialectic of misprision so as to implore the
world daily to arrange itself into a poem:
But what could I make of this? Glaze
Of many identical foreclosures wrested from
146 The Anxiety of Influence
The operative hand, like a judgment but still
The atmosphere of seeing? That two people could
Collide in this dusk means that the time of
Shapelessly foraging had come undone: the space was
Magnificent and dry. On flat evenings
In the months ahead, she would remember that that
Anomaly had spoken to her, words like disjointed beaches
Brown under the advancing signs of the air.
This, the last stanza of Fragment, returns Ashbery full
circle to his early Le Livre est sur La Table. There are
"collisions, communications on the shore" but these "col-
lide in this dusk." "Did the land advance?" of the early
poem is answered partly negatively, by the brown, dis-
jointed beaches, but partly also by "the advancing signs of
the air." Elsewhere in Fragment, Ashbery writes: "Thus
reasoned the ancestor, and everything/ Happened as he
had foretold, but in a funny kind of way." The strength of
the positive apophrades gives this quester the hard wis-
dom of the proverbial poem he rightly calls Soonest
Mended, which ends by:
. . . learning to accept
The charity of the hard moments as they are doled out,
For this is action, this not being sure, this careless
Preparing, sowing the seeds crooked in the furrow,
Making ready to forget, and always coming back
To the mooring of starting out, that day so long ago.
Here Ashbery has achieved one of the mysteries of po-
etic style, but only through the individuation of mispri-
The mystery of poetic style, the exuberance that is
beauty in every strong poet, is akin to the mature ego's de-
light in its own individuality, which reduces to the mys-
tery of narcissism. This narcissism is what Freud terms
Apophrades or The Return of the Dead 147
primary and normal, "the libidinal complement to the
egoism of the instinct of self-preservation." The strong
poet's love of his poetry, as itself, must exclude the reality
of all other poetry, except for what cannot be excluded,
the initial identification with the poetry of the precursor.
Any departure from initial narcissism, according to Freud,
leads to development of the ego, or in our terms, every ex-
ercise of a revisionary ratio, away from identification, is
the process generally called poetic development. If all ob-
ject-libido indeed has its origin in ego-libido, then we can
surmise also that each ephebe's initial experience of being
found by a precursor is made possible only through an ex-
cess of self-love. Apophrades, when managed by the capa-
ble imagination, by the strong poet who has persisted in
his strength, becomes not so much a return of the dead as
a celebration of the return of the early self-exaltation that
first made poetry possible.
The strong poet peers in the mirror of his fallen precur-
sor and beholds neither the precursor nor himself but a
Gnostic double, the dark otherness or antithesis that both
he and the precursor longed to be, yet feared to become.
Out of this deepest evasion, the complex imposture of the
positive apophrades constitutes itself, making possible the
last phases of Browning, Yeats, Stevens-all of whom
triumphed against old age. Asolando, Last Poems and
Plays, and "The Rock" section of Stevens' Collected
Poems are all astonishing manifestations of apophrades,
part of whose intent and effect is to make us read
differently-that is, read Wordsworth, Shelley, Blake,
Keats, Emerson, and Whitman differently. It is as though
the final phase of great modern poets existed neither for
last affirmations of a lifetime's beliefs, nor as palinodes,
but rather as the ultimate placing and reduction of ances-
tors. But this takes us to the central problem of apo-
phrades: is there still an anxiety of style as distinct from
148 The Anxiety of Influence
the anxiety of influence, or are the two anxieties now one?
If this book's argument is correct, then the covert subject
of most poetry for the last three centuries has been the
anxiety of influence, each poet's fear that no proper work
remains for him to perform. Clearly, there has been an
anxiety of style as long as there have been literary stan-
dards. But we have seen the concept of influence (and
poets' attendant morale) alter with the post-Enlighten-
ment dualism. Did the anxiety of style change also even as
the anxiety of influence began? Was the burden of individ-
uating a style, now intolerable for all new poets, so mas-
sive a burden before the anxiety of influence developed?
When we open a first volume of verse these days, we listen
to hear a distinctive voice, if we can, and if the voice is
not already somewhat differentiated from its precursors
and its fellows, then we tend to stop listening, no matter
what the voice is attempting to say. Dr. Samuel Johnson
had an acute apprehension of the anxiety of influence, yet
he still read any new poet by the test of asking whether
any new matter had been disclosed. Loathing Gray, John-
son nevertheless was compelled to the highest praise of
Gray on encountering notions that seemed to him origi-
The Church-yard abounds with images which find a mir-
rour in every mind, and with sentiments to which every
bosom returns an echo. The four stanzas beginning Yet even
these bones, are to me original: I have never seen the no-
tions in any other place; yet he that reads them here, per-
suades himself that he has always felt them. Had Gray writ-
ten often thus, it had been vain to blame, and useless to
praise him.
Original notions which every reader has felt, or is per-
suaded he has felt; this is more difficult than the fame of
Apophrades or The Return of the Dead 149
Johnson's passage allows us to see. Was Johnson accurate
in finding these stanzas original?
Yet even these bones from insult to protect
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture decked,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.
Their name, their years, spelt by the unlettered muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.
For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being, e'er resigned,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing lingering look behind?
On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev'n from the tomb the voice of nature cries,
Ev'n in our ashes live their wonted fires.
Swift, Pope's Odyssey, Milton's Belial, Lucretius, Ovid,
and Petrarch are all among Gray's precursors here, for as
an immensely learned poet, Gray rarely wrote without de-
liberately relating himself to nearly every possible literary
ancestor. Johnson was an immensely learned critic; why
did he praise these stanzas for an originality they do not
possess? A possible answer is that Johnson's own deepest
anxieties are openly expressed in this passage, and to find
a contemporary saying what one feels even more deeply
than he does, and yet what one is inhibited from express-
ing oneself, is to be persuaded of more originality than ex-
ists. Gray's stanzas cry out for just that minimal and figura-
tive immortality that the anxiety of influence denies us.
Whenever the rugged Johnsonian sensibility finds fresh
matter in literature, it is a safe assumption that John-
150 The Anxiety of Influence
sonian repression is also involved in such finding. But, as
Johnson is so universal a reader, he illustrates a tendency
in many other readers, which is to be found most deci-
sively by the notions we evade in our own minds. John-
son, who hated Gray's style, understood that in Gray's po-
etry the anxiety of style and the anxiety of influence had
become indistinguishable, yet he forgave Gray for the one
passage where Gray universalized the anxiety of self-pres-
ervation into a more general pathos. Writing on his poor
friend, Collins, Johnson has Gray in mind when he ob-
serves: "He affected the obsolete when it was not worthy
of revival; and he puts his words out of the common
order, seeming to think, with some later candidates for
fame, that not to write prose is certainly to write poetry."
Johnson seems to have so compounded the burden of orig-
inality and the problem of style, that he could denounce
style he judged vicious, and mean by. the denunciation
that no fresh matter was offered. So, despite seeming our
opposite, when we neglect content and search for individ-
uality of tone in a new poet, Johnson is very much our
ancestor. By the 1740's, at the latest, the anxiety of style
and the comparatively recent anxiety of influence had
begun a process of merging that seems to have culminated
during our last few decades.
We can see the same merger gradually manifesting itself
in the pastoral elegy and its descendants, for in a poet's la-
ment for his precursor, or more frequently for another
poet of his own generation, the poet's own deepest anxi-
eties tend to be uncovered. Moschus, lamenting Bion, be-
gins by declaring that poetry is dead because "he is dead,
the beautiful singer":
Ye nightingales that lament among the thick
leaves of the trees, tell ye to the Sicilian waters
of Arethusa the tidings that Bion the herdsman is
Apophrades or The Return of the Dead 151
dead, and that with Bion song too has died, and perished hath
the Dorian minstrelsy.
Begin, ye Sicilian Muses, begin the dirge.
Well before The Lament for Bion is over, Moschus has
made the necessarily happy discovery that all song has not
died with Bion:
... but I sing thee the dirge of an Ausonian sorrow,
I that am no stranger to the pastoral song, but heir of
the Doric Muse which thou didst teach thy pupils. This
was thy gift to me; to others didst thou leave thy wealth, to
me thy minstrelsy.
Begin, ye Sicilian Muses, begin the dirge.
The great pastoral elegies, indeed all major elegies for
poets, do not express grief but center upon their compos-
ers' own creative anxieties. They offer therefore as conso-
lation their own ambitions (Lycidas, Thyrsis) , or if they
are beyond ambition (Adonais, Whitman's Lilacs, Swin-
burne's Ave Atque Vale) then they offer oblivion. For the
largest irony of the revisionary ratio of apophrades is that
the later poets, confronting the imminence of death, work
to subvert the immortality of their precursors, as though
anyone poet's afterlife could be metaphorically prolonged
at the expense of another's. Even Shelley, in the sublimely
suicidal Adonais, a poem frighteningly transcending mere
disinterestedness, subtly divests Keats of the heroic natu-
ralism that is Keats's unique gift. Adonais becomes part of
a Power that works to transform a nature considered
"dull" and "dense" by the Orphic Shelley. Keats's delight
in the natural Intelligences that are Atoms of Perception,
that know and see and therefore are God, becomes instead
an impatience with the unwilling dross that would check
the Spirit's flight. Shelley, in his attitude towards precur-
sors and contemporaries, was by far the most generous
152 The Anxiety of Influence
strong poet of the post-Enlightenment. but even in him
the final phase of the dialectic of misprision had to work
itself out.
British and American poetry, at least since Milton, has
been a severely displaced Protestantism, and the overtly
devotional poetry of the last three hundred years has been
therefore mostly a failure. The Protestant God. insofar as
He was a Person. yielded His paternal role for poets to
the blocking figure of the Precursor. God the Father. for
Collins. is John Milton, and Blake's early rebellion
against Nobodaddy is made complete by the satiric attack
upon Paradise Lost that is at the centre of The Book of
Urizen and that hovers, much more uneasily, all through
the cosmology of The Four Zoas. Poetry whose hidden
subject is the anxiety of influence is naturally of a Protes-
tant temper, for the Protestant God always seems to iso-
late His children in the terrible double bind of two great
injunctions: "Be like Me" and "Do not presume to be too
like Me."
The fear of godhood is pragmatically a fear of poetic
strength, for what the ephebe enters upon. when he be-
gins his life cycle as a poet, is in every sense a process of
divination. The young poet, Stevens remarked. is a god.
but he added that the old poet is a tramp. If godhood con-
sisted only in knowing accurately what is going to happen
next. then every contemporary Sludge would be a poet.
But what the strong poet truly knows is only that he is
going to happen next. that he is going to write a poem in
which his radiance will be manifest. When a poet beholds
his end, however, he needs some more rugged evidence
that his past poems are not what skeletons think about.
and he searches for evidences of election that will fulfill
his precursors' prophecies by fundamentally re-creating
those prophecies in his own unmistakeable idiom. This is
the curious magic of the positive apophrades.
Apophrades or The Return of the Dead 153
Yeats, whose ghostly intensities of the final phase are
mixed with a disinterested enthusiasm for violence, vio-
lence largely for its own sake, succeeded brilliantly in
making the dead return in his idiom:
Beneath, the billows having vainly striven
Indignant and impetuous, roared to feel
The swift and steady motion of the keel.
But she in the calm depths her way could take,
Where in bright bowers immortal forms abide
Beneath the weltering of the restless tide.
And she unwound the woven imagery
Of second childhood's swaddling bands, and took
The coffin, its last cradle, from its niche,
And threw it with contempt into a ditch.
We feel, in reading The Witch of Atlas, that Shelley
has read too deeply in Yeats, and is doomed never to get
the tonal complexities of the Byzantium poems out of his
mind. We encounter the same phenomenon here:
Insect lover of the sun,
Joy of thy dominion!
Sailor of the atmosphere;
Swimmer through the waves of air;
Voyager of light and noon;
Epicurean of June;
Wait, I prithee, till I come
Within earshot of thy hum,-
All without is martyrdom.
All without is martyrdom-certainly this ought to be
Dickinson, but it is Emerson's The Humble-Bee (a poem
154 The Anxiety of Influence
for which Dickinson admitted some fondness). Examples
abound; the hugely idiosyncratic Milton shows the influ-
ence, in places, of Wordsworth; Wordsworth and Keats
both have a tinge of Stevens; the Shelley of The Cenci de-
rives from Browning; Whitman appears at times too en-
raptured by Hart Crane. It is important only that we
learn to distinguish this phenomenon from its aesthetic
opposite, the embarrassment, say, of reading The Scholar-
Gipsy and Thyrsis, and finding the odes of Keats crowd-
ing out poor Arnold. Keats can seem a touch over-affected
by Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites, even by Pater, but
never does he seem the heir of Matthew Arnold.
.. Let the dead poets make way for others. Then we
might even come to see that it is our veneration for what
has already been created ... that petrifies us...." Mad
Artaud carried the anxiety of influence into a region
where influence and its counter-movement, misprision,
could not be distinguished. If latecomer poets are to avoid
following him there, they need to know that the dead
poets will not consent to make way for others. But, it is
more important that new poets possess a richer knowing.
The precursors flood us, and our imaginations can die by
drowning in them, but no imaginative life is possible if
such inundation is wholly evaded. In Wordsworth's dream
of the Arab, the vision of a drowning world brings no ini-
tial terror, but a prior vision of dessication immediately
does. Ferenczi in his apocalypse, Thalassa: A Theory of
Genitality, explains all myths of deluge as a reversal:
The first and foremost danger encountered by organisms
which were all originally water-inhabiting was not that of
inundation but of dessication. The raising of Mount Ararat
out of the waters of the flood would thus be not only a de-
liverance, as told in the Bible, but at the same time the orig-
Apophrades or The Return of the Dead 155
inal catastrophe which may have only later on been recast
from the standpoint of land-dwellers.
Artaud, desperately seeking to raise his Ararat, is at
least a poignant figure; the rabblement of his disciples re-
mind us only that we but live, as Yeats said, where motley
is worn. Our poets who are capable still of unfolding in
their strength live where their precursors have lived for
three centuries now, under the shadow of the Covering
Reflections upon the Path
Riding three days and nights he came upon the place,
but decided it could not be come upon.
He paused therefore to consider.
This must be the place. If I have come upon it, then
I am of no consequence.
Or this cannot be the place. There is then no conse-
quence, but I am myself not diminished.
Or this may be the place. But I may not have come
upon it. I may have been here always.
Or no one is here, and I am merely of and in the
place. And no one can come upon it.
This may not be the place. Then I am purposeful, of
consequence, but have not come upon it.
But this must be the place. And since I cannot come
upon it, I am not I, I am not here, here is not here.
After riding three days and nights he failed to come
to the place, and rode out again.
Was it that the place knew him not, or failed to find
him? Was he not capable?
In the story it only says one need come upon the
Riding three days and nights he came upon the place,
but decided it could not be come upon.